DOHA, Qatar — Several times a week, a plane with precious, perishable cargo breaks the predawn still of the desert. Sometimes it comes an hour early, sometimes two hours late, but when it lands, Air Force Maj. Brian Dart’s team must act quickly.
While most of Al Udeid Air Base sleeps, they work feverishly, picking through the smoky haze of dry ice to pull yellow bags of plasma and red bags of blood from their boxes, checking for the smallest defect. The bags are destined for the bustling trauma centers in Afghanistan and Iraq where, for a soldier bleeding out on the operating table, they could be the key to survival.
The smallest defect could mean a burst bag at the hospital, which could mean minutes lost when seconds matter.
“It’s (stressful) knowing that if I fail, someone could die,” Dart said.
Dart oversees Al Udeid’s blood center, which processes liquid blood and frozen plasma. The unit moves more than two tons per week — nearly every drop used in the two war zones — in addition to the dry ice used to ship and store the lifeblood moving to Iraq and Afghanistan.
It’s the blood center team’s job to quickly but thoroughly inspect each bag and make sure every box has a mix of blood types. The airmen also check the temperature of each bag and then repack it all to be put on a plane headed wherever it is needed.
It’s tedious physical labor, and because the planes come in late at night, it puts the team on a nocturnal schedule for their whole deployment.
“We leave here tired, but we’re definitely happy in the fact that what we do here [has] a direct impact on the soldiers, airmen and Marines downrange,” said Tech Sgt. Anthony Williams, 37, of Bernice, La.
The blood heads out the same day (followed closely by the more durable plasma) to restock military hospitals where, especially in increasingly violent Afghanistan, blood supplies are constantly taxed by a steady stream of seriously injured troops and civilians.
On the other end of those bags is the carnage wrought by bomb blasts, gunshots and accidents — severed limbs, burned flesh, lives altered for good. All of this makes Dart feel connected to the faraway battlefield.
“Even though we’re sitting back here, you feel the impact,” he said.
The airmen at the blood center are acutely aware that soldiers and Marines are bearing the brunt of the violence in Afghanistan and Iraq.
“It makes you kind of grateful,” said Sr. Airman Kendall Thomas, 23, of Philadelphia. “We’re helping guys down there that are actually in danger.”