- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 26, 2007

CAMP TAHJI, Iraq — The wounded rarely scream. Sometimes they moan, or shake, or want to hold your hand, or call for their mothers. Sometimes they are angry, sometimes scared.

But for all of them, the overhead roar of a U.S. Blackhawk helicopter with its large red cross underneath means that they just might survive.

“You try to reassure them the whole time,” said Sgt. Christopher Orange, a flight medic who during 20 months in Iraq has picked up dozens of seriously hurt soldiers — some missing arms and legs — as well as Iraqi victims of brutal torture.

“The arrival of the Hawk means they know they are getting out,” said Sgt. Orange, who acknowledges that he is tired. “Every time we launch a mission, we see the bad part of the war. It’s an [operational] tempo that wears you down.”

Flight medics, pilots and crew chiefs know the chances of saving a wounded soldier are best if he receives medical attention within a crucial “golden hour” — or maybe 90 minutes — after being injured. That knowledge drives them to work flat out after every call.

It takes members of Charlie Co., 2-227th Aviation Regiment, 1st Air Cavalry Brigade, less than 11 minutes to jump to their feet, find out how many are hurt and where they are, put on their body armor and get the helicopter off the ground.

Pilots land on roadsides, bridges, fields, between buildings — anywhere that they have to go. If bullets are flying, Apache gunship helicopters are called in to help.

“You have to be constantly planning for contingencies in your mind,” said Chief Warrant Officer 2 Michael Fusilier, 29, of Louisiana.

“I flew south of Baqouba to pick up a kid that was shot in the head by a sniper. A mission like that is time critical, so we flew right through the middle of the city [where they are especially vulnerable to ground fire] to try and shave off a minute or two of time,” he said.

Medevac pilots do not have much time to plan. They are given grid coordinates of where to go and know they must get there quickly. They are often shot at.

But what is uppermost in their minds is “that soldier bleeding on the battlefield out there,” said Chief Warrant Officer Fusilier.

Staff Sgt. Maxie Kimbriel, who has been a medic for 19 years and a flight medic for seven, has learned to always be ready for anything. Messages that come over the phone can be misleading, he said. Sometimes two patients can turn into 10; sometimes injuries are horrific.

The process starts with a “nine-line” phone call: Whether by telephone, radio or computer, the call comes in to the Medevac Tactical Operations Command Center providing nine items of information about the emergency.

“The first time I took a nine-line it was just nerve-wracking,” said Spc. Jessica Legler, 23, of Bedford, Ind. “Your heart does sink, you have a sense of urgency and you have to be really aware.

“You want to be as fast and as accurate as possible because you know a person’s life depends on it,” added the specialist, who simultaneously sends the information down to the flight team.

Wednesday morning, the Charlie Co. team was sitting in chairs wedged in inch-deep gravel, tossing small rocks into a metal can — and occasionally at each other.

Suddenly, the phone rang. The team was on its feet and in the headquarters office within seconds. Two Iraqi army injured, came the message. In Amariyah, western Baghdad.

Less than 10 minutes later, the pilot, co-pilot, medic and crew chief had on their body armor and the helicopter was taking off. It was 11:32 a.m.

Flying fast over date palm farms and rivers, it took just a few minutes more to reach western Baghdad; Sgt. Kimbriel had pulled on latex gloves and was readying himself to pick up the patients. Sgt. Orange, his roommate and friend, was right behind, flying “chase” in a second helicopter.

Sgt. Kimbriel jumped out into the dust cloud raised by the rotor blades as the first Blackhawk touched down at an Iraqi army post in the middle of a Sunni insurgent area.

Moments later, he returned leading a group of Iraqis with a soldier who had suffered a partial amputation of his right leg. By the time the helicopter lifted off, Sgt. Kimbriel was cutting off the man’s shirt.

He leaned over, looked the man in the eyes as he started to shake on the metal litter, and held up a forefinger to reassure him: “One minute” until they would reach the U.S. hospital inside the walled Green Zone, he said.

During that minute, Sgt. Kimbriel removed the rest of the man’s shirt, checked his entire body for other injuries, found some perforations on his right side, checked his blood oxygen levels, and wrote up a report.

It was 11:54 a.m. — just 22 minutes after lifting off from the medevac helicopter flight-line — when the Blackhawk pilot set down softly outside the hospital, where doctors, nurses and interpreters were waiting.

A half hour later, the crew had flown back over Baghdad, banking hard right and left to evade any ground fire, refueled and landed back in the parking lot of the camp.

The speed and proficiency of the four-man team has saved the lives of hundreds of people, ranging from U.S. soldiers wounded by roadside bombs to small children caught in the crossfire.

Since Sept. 16, 2006, this medevac company has flown 1,786 missions and cared for 2,806 patients. Of those missions, 275 victims have been “roadsides” — U.S. soldiers or Iraqis wounded by roadside bombs.

“You know its bad when you run out of the helicopter and there are body parts,” said Sgt. Orange.

“It’s always hard to pick up a soldier, especially ones that have amputations,” agreed Sgt. Kimbriel, sitting under a net awning just a sprint away from where the UH-60 Blackhawks are parked.

As good as the team is, they know that some of the wounded men they are called to pick up will not make it home alive.

“It’s quite emotional. It still gets to me. I don’t think you can get numb to that,” said Chief Warrant Officer Fusilier.

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