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From left, Misawa Air Base, Japan, maintainers Staff Sgts. Travis Lechleiter, Jackie Price, Natatera Green, and Airman 1st Class Timothy Korpolewski stand underneath the American flag canopy called “Hero’s Hwy” at Balad Air Base, Iraq. The airmen, deployed to Iraq since January, volunteer their time regularly at Balad's Air Force Theater Hospital.
From left, Misawa Air Base, Japan, maintainers Staff Sgts. Travis Lechleiter, Jackie Price, Natatera Green, and Airman 1st Class Timothy Korpolewski stand underneath the American flag canopy called “Hero’s Hwy” at Balad Air Base, Iraq. The airmen, deployed to Iraq since January, volunteer their time regularly at Balad's Air Force Theater Hospital. (Ken Hall / Courtesy of U.S. Air Force)

While taking care of F-16 fighter jets that fly combat sorties in Iraq, they think about the place where they spend their free time.

The “whoomp, whoomp, whoomp” of an incoming helicopter reminds them they want to go back.

Not to a gym to blow off steam, not to a movie theater to be entertained, but to a tent hospital, where they have glimpsed images of war that will stay with them forever.

Misawa aircraft maintainers Staff Sgts. Travis Lechleiter, Jackie Price and Natatera Green, and Airman 1st Class Timothy Korpolewski, routinely volunteer at the Air Force Theater Hospital at Balad Air Base, the largest Air Force hospital to be deployed since the Vietnam War, according to military officials.

The ‘real heroes’

Part of the 332nd Expeditionary Aircraft Maintenance Squadron at Balad, the airmen are more than halfway through a four-month deployment that began in January in support of Misawa’s 14th Fighter Squadron.

They were drawn to the hospital for different motives, the four said during a phone interview Wednesday night from Balad, but they continue to volunteer for one reason: They can’t stop.

Volunteering, they said, is their way of giving back to those who are sacrificing so much more than they are.

“It’s giving a helping hand to the real heroes,” Price said.

Without prior medical experience, Lechleiter, Price and Korpolewski mostly assist at the helicopter pad, which military choppers use to shuttle the injured and wounded in and out of Balad’s Level III trauma center.

The field hospital treats fresh combat casualties, the most common being from roadside bombs, gunshots and burns, military officials said.

The patients come from all walks of life: U.S. servicemembers to Iraqi detainees and children — a harsh reality the maintainers confront while they could be sleeping or watching a DVD on their day off.

“What really brings it home is the young children,” said Price, 27, a crew chief from Tahlequah, Okla. “They usually come off the helos on stretchers accompanied by their parents. Most of them make it, but occasionally” they don’t.

The good nights

Lighter moments come in the children’s ward, where Lechleiter, 23, tries out his best Donald Duck imitation and funny faces to evoke a smile or laugh.

A crew chief from Redding, Calif., Lechleiter didn’t plan on volunteering eight to 10 hours a week for hospital duty. But then a family friend, a Marine who flew medical evacuation missions, was killed when his helicopter was shot down over Iraq.

“That changed me,” he said. “I wanted to [be a part of] something that he did.”

Price and Korpolewski soon followed suit.

“He came into work, telling the rest of us what he had done at the pad and the kind of help that they needed over there,” Price said of Lechleiter.

Their typical duties include carrying litters, helping a person walk, or pushing wheelchairs.

“Sometimes you’re really busy where you don’t stop moving,” said Korpolewski, 20, a crew chief from Las Vegas. “Sometimes you get a night where you sit around and talk to people who work there, while you’re waiting for something to happen. Those are the good nights, obviously.”

Say a prayer

Green, 29, a weapons loader from Oxford, N.C., had prior medical experience before joining the military and knew she wanted to help at the hospital while deployed. She usually works in the emergency room, heading there at 1 a.m. or 2 a.m. after her shift ends, putting in four to six hours a week. She does blood work, IVs, heart rate monitors and other duties.

Usually the patients are in too much pain to talk, but sometimes they want to know if they’re going to be OK, Green said.

“We had one patient come in. He was hurt pretty bad,” she said. “He just wanted some reassurance that he had done a good job and that he was appreciated for what he did. When you see stuff like that you don’t know really what to say except ‘thank you.’ ”

Military officials said that the wounded who reach the hospital’s emergency department have a 98 percent survival rate to the next level of care. Lechleiter has seen the other percentage. On his second night volunteering, a soldier hit by a roadside bomb was brought in.

“His head injuries were too extreme,” Lechleiter said. “He just pretty much died in front of us. I’ve never been around anything like that.”

All that was left to do was say a prayer, he said.

A second job

Balad’s hospital treats an average of 700 patients each month, including about 120 U.S. patients, 30 Iraqi soldiers and civilians, and 25 coalition members and third-country nationals each week, according to Capt. Ken Hall, 332nd Air Expeditionary Wing spokesman. Patients who require air evacuation for further care in Germany or the United States usually remain fewer than 24 hours, he said.

First Lt. Lena Freienmuth, assistant officer-in-charge of the maintainers’ unit — the 14th Aircraft Maintenance Unit at Misawa — said everyone is proud of the airmen.

“The precious off time they do have, they go down to the hospital,” she said.

The airmen plan to volunteer throughout the rest of their deployment — as long as the patients keep coming.

“When we see the helicopters, we want to go to the hospital and see what’s going on,” Lechleiter said. “[You think] ‘Well, I should be at the hospital right now.’ It feels like your second job. You feel like you have to go over there.”

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