- The Washington Times - Monday, November 3, 2003

BAGHDAD — From the air, the Chinook transport helicopter looks flattened. It doesn’t look like a helicopter at all, and considering that the Black Hawk medevac helicopter that I’m riding in is supposed to be headed to a roadside bomb explosion, it doesn’t occur to me that the mess 400 feet below us is unusual.

But as we near the scene about 19 miles southwest of Fallujah, it’s clear from the six or eight choppers already on the ground that something big is happening. Sitting in the back of the Black Hawk without a headset to listen to the two pilots, medic and crew chief who fly the missions, I have no idea what is going on.

Once we touch down, however, it doesn’t take long for reality to sink in. About a dozen men from the 82nd Airborne come running at our chopper as though we are bringing them casualties. Usually, it’s the other way around.

Minutes later, an ambulance pulls up to the chopper carrying a young soldier with a serious head wound. During this mission, we happen to have on board a visiting Air Force flight surgeon; he and the medic quickly start working on the wounded man.

Within minutes, the doctor is performing CPR, and the medic is trying to clear breathing tubes, which have filled with blood. This soldier is barely alive.

Under normal circumstances, the team would fly the soldier to the 28th Combat Support Hospital (CSH) in Baghdad, where there’s a state-of-the-art medical facility for U.S. troops. But a Chinook filled with wounded has run out of fuel while landing there moments before, leaving the landing pad blocked until the crippled machine can be moved.

The soldier is dying. The flight commander, Capt. James Hannam, decides to rush him instead to a surgical field station near his air base. As the medical team pulls the wounded soldier out of our chopper, his pulse stops, but he continues to breathe somewhat on his own.

We still don’t know whether he made it.

Returning to the airfield, I learn what I just witnessed. A surface-to-air missile fired by the Iraqi resistance has brought down a Chinook helicopter loaded with soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division.

The 159 Medical Evacuation Co. had agreed to let me “embed” with them for the weekend. I had complete access to their quarters, vehicles, personnel and missions, and as long as I didn’t interfere with the treatment of the wounded, I could do or photograph anything I wanted.

The unit gets to any scene it’s called to within 10 minutes of notification. They cover the region from Baghdad north to Balad and west to Ramadi. It’s a lot of ground to cover, even for a Black Hawk.

Within minutes of our arriving back at the base, Capt. Hannam and his team get orders to return to the site of the crash. This time, we land and get out on the scene, not at the temporary field station where we stopped previously.

Even being on the ground next to the scene, I still don’t recognize the mess as a helicopter. For all I can tell, the charred mass of wreckage could be a train wreck.

The rescuers have piled the rucksacks and helmets of the men who were on board into neat rows, which stand in stark contrast to the smoldering, sprawling pile of metallic rubble. Air Force search-and-rescue teams are crawling over the wreckage with acetylene torches, cutting through metal, looking for anything human.

As I begin taking pictures of the scene, an angry officer from the 82nd Airborne grabs me, demanding to know who I am and how I obtained permission from the medevac’s commander to accompany them. He tries to evict me from the crash site, and his men eye my camera with ill intent. The medevac crew intervenes, and we are on our way again.

Capt. Hannam later tells me that a medevac had been requested but that on arrival it became clear there were only dead bodies. Part of the reason for the tension, Capt. Hannam explains, was not just my presence, but his refusal to remove two bodies from the scene.

“We only fly the living,” he later tells me. “We can’t have bodies on board, we might get a call and need the space. We can only help the living, and those guys didn’t like it.”

Sure enough, within minutes of being airborne, we get another call, this time to pick up a severely injured soldier whose Humvee has flipped upside down into an irrigation ditch. He is flown to the 28th CSH in Baghdad.

When we return to base, I ask Capt. Hannam whether the accident was the result of enemy fire.

“I don’t know,” he replies. “We don’t know what happens half the time. We just show up and treat them.”

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