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Nightmare to miracle: REACH 797 reflects on mission

  • Published
  • By Tech. Sgt. Nicole Leidholm
  • 436th Airlift Wing

In August 2019, a 3rd Airlift Squadron C-17 Globemaster III crew from Dover Air Force Base, Delaware, was notified they were being diverted for another mission.

Immediately upon arrival at Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, the crew of REACH 797 went into crew rest to prepare for a non-stop, 8,000-mile flight to San Antonio, Texas. They were tasked with the critical role of bringing Ryan, a weapons squadron leader with 1st Ranger Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment, back stateside for medical care after being critically wounded in a blast.

The teams responsible for saving Ryan met with him and his spouse, Asia, via Zoom recently to talk about the experience.

“I remember everything from that night,” said Ryan. “Everything was going according to plan until we were spread out. During that period, we took contact [from enemy fire] so I initiated movement to close off contact. When I got close, there was an explosion to my right.”

Ryan was injured by a detonated improvised explosive device, fracturing his pelvis and injuring his abdomen, arms and legs. He was airlifted to Craig Joint Theater Hospital, Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, where they performed four operations, including amputations of his right arm and lower right leg.

Back in Savannah, Georgia, Asia received a call from the 1/75th Battalion commander.

“At first I thought it was Ryan because I didn’t hear from him the night before,” said Asia. “I figured something had happened, but didn’t know what.”

The commander explained to Asia that her husband had been injured and she was frantic for answers.

“Can I talk to him?”

“No, you can’t.”

“Is he stable?”


“Is he going to be OK?”

“I don’t know.”

Asia later received an update that an Extracorporeal Membrane Oxygenation Team from the 59th Medical Wing was going to fly with him to Texas.

Col. Scott King, then a lieutenant colonel assigned to the 86th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron as a critical care air transport team physician, was notified of the mission and that the ECMO team from Texas was headed to Germany.

“[The surgeons in Bagram] were having difficulties ventilating him,” said King. “They needed ECMO to essentially bypass to the lungs so they could oxygenate through the vein artificially.”

During this time, Maj. Dan Kudlacz, then a 3rd AS pilot and aircraft commander for the mission, had just finished picking up cargo to bring to Europe and the Middle East when the call from 618th Air Operations Center (Tanker Airlift Control Center) told them to prepare for a higher priority mission.

“There were loose details at that point, but we knew it was a medical evacuation to somewhere in Afghanistan,” said Kudlacz. “The next morning, we gained all the papers for the mission and an update. We figured out more about what the itinerary was going to be, but pieces were still coming together based on the care Ryan was getting and his stability.”

The crew conducted two aerial refuelings in order to get Ryan to Brooke Army Medical Center, Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston, Texas, as quickly as possible.

“When I came to, I remember my wife next to me crying,” said Ryan. “I was swollen and remember thinking this is not good. But it went from a nightmare to a miracle.”

The first few days at BAMC, Ryan went through multiple surgeries in an attempt to save his foot. Asia made the tough decision to have the surgeons amputate it.

“I just looked at them and said, ‘You have to cut off the foot,’” said Asia. “He’s dying everywhere else.”

Ryan ended up contracting Afghanistan E. coli and carbapenem-resistant Enterobacteriaceae (CRE), but none of the drugs available in the U.S. were working.

“They kept cutting and kept cutting and I said, ‘There has to be a drug that can kill this,’” said Asia. “If you keep cutting at him there’s not going to be anything left and I wouldn’t want to live like that and I’m not going to make him live like that.”

Asia worked with the physicians at BAMC to secure an experimental drug from Japan, with the hope of saving her husband.

“His white blood cell count was extremely high,” said Asia. “I said let’s give it a shot. On day three his white count dropped and we knew he was going to make it.”

Once he was stabilized and the E. coli stopped spreading, the hard work of recovering from massive trauma began.

“I was an athlete growing up and then an Army Ranger, so I was able to always rely on that part of life,” said Ryan. “Having to restart or reboot and getting into my first leg, I thought “this hurts really bad, but I think this is where we start.’”

During his recovery, Ryan asked Asia if she still wanted to be with him.

“I said, ‘Of course I want to be with you,” said Asia. “I would’ve left you as soon as I got that phone call if I was going to leave you, or I would have left you in the hospital for the months you were dying.”

Ryan has gone through additional surgeries to get fitted with prosthetic legs and is now working towards having more normalcy in his life.

“We’re to a point where we’re starting to get things back,” said Ryan. “I’m starting to learn how to be Dad and husband again, that standard I want to be.”

Ryan and Asia were appreciative of the hard work the medical teams put in to save his life.

“I remember looking at him thinking he looks so bad,” said Asia. “I was happy to get him back.”

The medical team that played a vital role in Ryan’s survival was happy to see his immense improvement from when they last saw him on the C-17 more than two years ago.

“This situation highlights the capability of medical care,” said King. “What impresses me the most is that we were able to pull this off. We have a crew that had other cargo and another mission, and priority was given to one of our Soldiers. Our country’s priority is to get their troops back home and get them the best medical care that they possibly can. As a physician, there is no greater honor than to have a job where we primarily work bringing moms, dads, sons and daughters back home to their families.”

The full names of the injured soldier and his spouse are being withheld for personal and family privacy.

The initial article can be viewed at: