Medics care and comfort wounded troops on flights from Iraq to Landstuhl hospital
BALAD, Iraq — Soon after the C-141 Starlifter touched down, medics attached to the 791st Expeditionary Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron began converting the cargo plane into a flying ambulance.
Nine seriously wounded troops on stretchers and 12 “walking wounded” were on their way, and the medics had to get the plane ready for the long flight to Germany.
A small radio blasted out the rhythms of INXS as the seven medics set up frames to hold stretchers and ran cables for oxygen. They had about an hour before the patients arrive.
“We’re not heroes, we just bring them home,” said Capt. Kimberly Brady, 34, of Maryland, an Air Force nurse who directs the medical crew that takes care of the injured while in flight. “We feel honored and privileged to know we’re a part of this.
“Everyone who comes on our plane is a hero ... they went [to Iraq] for us,” she said.
Some of the wounded come from the Army field hospital at Balad’s Logistics Support Area Anaconda. Others are flown in from around the theater by helicopter or on a C-130.
The cargo bay on a C-141 can hold up to 103 stretchers. One crew carried 77 patients, the largest single load from Iraq, Brady said. But the number of patients does not define their workload, Brady said, it’s the extent of their injuries.
“We’re airlifting people’s sons and daughters, sometimes with parts of their bodies missing, parts of their souls missing,” Brady said.
Some have died before getting aloft. Others die in flight.
Weeks later, the team will see a face in a newspaper and know that one of their patients died in the hospital.
Crews from the Air Mobility Command flying cargo to Iraq often have a sleepy crew of medics aboard, said Lt. Col. Phillip “Hawkeye” Pierce, a C-141 pilot from the 89th Airlift Squadron out of Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio.
After the C-141 lands, the plane’s crew help clear the way for the medics to set up their gear. They often watch in awe as the medics set to work caring for the wounded, Pierce said.
“The dedication of the medical personnel is phenomenal, considering the pressure they are under,” Pierce said.
A flight nurse for eight years, Brady is a nurse practitioner and float nurse at a hospital in Washington D.C., when she’s not serving in uniform. She and her crew, many who are volunteers from Reserve units, have been flying patients out of Iraq since November.
Most of their patients are combat injuries heading to the Army’s hospital in Landstuhl, Germany.
They also cared for Thomas Hamill, the KBR contractor captured in April by Iraqi insurgents. He was aboard their flight just three hours after he evaded his captors, Brady said.
Hamill didn’t say much about his captivity, and “the last thing he needed was us asking him lots of questions,” Brady said.
Knowing how to comfort patients goes along with the job.
Sometimes patients are missing arms or legs. “And they say they want to go back,” Brady said.
Sometimes wounded troops are toward the front of the plane, while their dead comrades may be in the back. They keep them separated, but the troops know their fallen buddy is on the ride home.
Bedside manners are an inherent part of the job, using kind words and compassion, Brady said, “and we’re holding the morphine.”
Some men are self-conscious of their wounds, asking how they will explain their disfigurements and injuries to wives and girlfriends or if they will be able to father children, Brady said.
“They really worry about that stuff,” she said.
April was a very bloody month, Brady said.
In fact, her unit conducted what Brady said was the heaviest medical airlift since Vietnam: about 2,800 injured troops. Bullets, rockets and shrapnel caused major injuries, claiming limbs and lives.
“CNN only covers [troops] that died,” Brady said. “You’re not seeing the wounded around those killed.”
During April’s heavy fighting, the team treated patients on flights about three days each week. Now they’re down to two days.
“It’s good if business is slowing down,” Brady said. “We want to be put out of business.”
What’s unclear is whether or not violent attacks against coalition forces will increase as the June 30 deadline to hand over power to the new Iraqi government draws closer.
“We’re still very much in business,” Brady said. “We’re worried that the end of this month will be getting bloody and turn into April all over again.”