A Ride To Remember

SOUTHWEST ASIA -- A 737th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron crew out of Pope Air Force Base, N.C. flew a medevac mission Jan. 31, 2008 in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom which helped save the life of a 13-month-old Iraqi boy injured by an improvised explosive device attack in southern Iraq which claimed the lives of both his parents. The aircrew, (top row left to right) Capt. Jeff Noble, aircraft commander, Capt. Neil Hoy, co-pilot, Capt. Nathan Preuss, navigator, and (bottom row left to right) Senior Master Sgt. J.R. Miller, engineer, Senior Airman Chase Cantrell and Airman 1st Class Ross Hagen, loadmasters, recently returned home from their deployment to a Southwest Asia air base in support of the Global War on Terror. Their mission while deployed was to transport cargo and passengers throughout the deployed theater. (Courtesy photo)

SOUTHWEST ASIA -- A 737th Expeditionary Airlift Squadron crew out of Pope Air Force Base, N.C. flew a medevac mission Jan. 31, 2008 in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom which helped save the life of a 13-month-old Iraqi boy injured by an improvised explosive device attack in southern Iraq which claimed the lives of both his parents. The aircrew, (top row left to right) Capt. Jeff Noble, aircraft commander, Capt. Neil Hoy, co-pilot, Capt. Nathan Preuss, navigator, and (bottom row left to right) Senior Master Sgt. J.R. Miller, engineer, Senior Airman Chase Cantrell and Airman 1st Class Ross Hagen, loadmasters, recently returned home from their deployment to a Southwest Asia air base in support of the Global War on Terror. Their mission while deployed was to transport cargo and passengers throughout the deployed theater. (Courtesy photo)

SOUTHWEST ASIA -- The back end of a mighty C-130 Hercules at any altitude has never been considered a comfortable place.

During flight, a steady vibration shakes all aboard; the passengers, who are rarely afforded knee or elbow room, wear earplugs to help block out the hum of the propellers which continuously cut through the air like a hot knife through butter. While in flight, the hum of the props is only interrupted by the sounds of the pumps and motors used to position the gear and flaps.

Aircrew and maintenance personnel do their best to keep the 'Herc' in top shape, but hauling around war fighters and their gear for more than 40 years has slowly taken its toll. However, with some supplemental equipment and a few twists and turns, the 'Herc' can be transformed into an airborne hospital room enabling medical personnel to provide urgent care to wounded war fighters and civilians while being transported to a theater hospital or major medical clinic.

Most often, these medevac missions go off without a hitch, we fly in, pick-up the aeromedical evacuation crew and patients and we fly them to where they need to go, but a recent mission flown by my crew and I will always be 'a ride to remember'.

On Jan. 31, we arrived to Balad Air Base, Iraq and were met by Maj. Frederick Sawyers, the team lead for the Tennessee Air National Guard aeromedical evacuation crew.

While on the ground, Major Sawyers informed us we'd be picking up two patients in the deployed theater and returning them to Balad for treatment. One of which was a 13-month-old Iraqi boy injured by an improvised explosive device attack in southern Iraq which claimed the lives of both his parents.

The aeromedical crew quickly loaded their gear and supplies on the aircraft like a well-oiled machine and soon after we revved up the engines and were on our way.

The trip south to Ali Base in Talil, Iraq was uneventful and the medical staff on the ground was standing by our arrival. Both C-130 loadmasters, Senior Airman Chase Cantrell and Airman 1st Class Ross Hagen, assisted the medical crew with the quick upload of the patients and Maj. Aaron Elliott, an Army nurse anesthetist deployed with the 31st Combat Support Hospital at Camp Bucca, Iraq, who would be assisting in patient care throughout the flight.

It was while we were taxiing into position to take off, when things got exciting.

The infant Iraqi boy, suffering from severe burns and clinging to life with the aid of a mechanical respirator, quickly took a turn for the worse when the respirator failed. Turning around at this point was not an option. We had to continue so we could get both patients to the Air Force Theater Hospital up at Balad.

Major Elliott quickly resorted to using a manual powered hand-pump respirator to keep the boy breathing. The aeromedical crew relayed this vital information and a sense of urgency spiked in all aboard. We let air traffic control know that we were a medevac mission and the ATC coordinated for us to go from our current position directly to Balad without delay.

It seemed in an instant that the stars were beginning to align and we would soon be on the ground. Or so we thought.

As the early morning sun began to rise, fog began settling in at Balad reducing the ceiling visibility to 800 meters, the minimum required to attempt an instrument approach. We initially picked up the airfield about fifteen nautical miles out, but as we continued our descent, the airfield began to disappear. The aircraft commander, Capt. Jeff Noble, focused on his instruments while Capt. Nathan Preuss, the navigator, and Senior Master Sgt. J.R. Miller, the engineer, and I searched for the field. With not a second to spare, we picked up the runway and Captain Noble finished the approach to a soft, safe landing.

By the time we cleared the runway, the visibility deteriorated to the point where we could barely make out the emergency vehicles awaiting our arrival. Despite our familiarization with the Balad airfield, we waited for the ground personnel to show up before we continued taxiing as the visibility was being reported at 300 meters.

With the 'follow me' vehicle in sight we taxied to the parking spot, shut down the engines, and immediately off-loaded the patients which were then transported to the medical center where they'd receive the treatment they needed. After the flight into Balad, Major Sawyers told me, "The hard part is getting the patient to Balad," and we did.

In the midst of the mission, we did not realize the significance of what we were doing. Everyone represented a piece of the puzzle and did exactly what they were supposed to do, what we were trained to do. We flew the aircraft while the medevac crew and nurse anesthetist provided care for the patients. But when we put it all together, we realized that we were part of something special.

The actions that led up to our mission were tragic, but we had a chance to avoid one more tragedy, by getting a critically injured Iraqi boy to Balad. It's been more than two weeks since we completed this mission and I am happy to report that the boy is still holding on and fighting to survive. Like most burn victims, he still has a long road ahead of him. But thankfully, he is receiving the best possible care and if there is a place where he will be able to make a recovery--it's the Air Force Theater Hospital up at Balad.

Editor's note: The aircrew from this mission recently returned home to Pope Air Force Base, N.C.