SCOTT AIR FORCE BASE, Ill. -- Staff Sergeant April Cooper, an aeromedical evacuation technician at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois, had just returned from Little Rock Air Force Base, Arkansas, after providing support for Hurricane Harvey. Knowing Hurricane Maria was about to make landfall, she left her bags right by her front door. She was still on Bravo alert and knew when Maria hit, AE support would be needed quickly.
This second mission would last three weeks at MacDill AFB, Florida, compared to her five day mission at Little Rock. Her time in Arkansas would help prepare her for the mission of multiple flights to St. Croix in the near future.
“I didn’t expect us to be at MacDill for so long,” she said. “We were on Bravo alert waiting and waiting to see what was going to happen. The longer we were on Bravo we thought maybe we weren’t going to go. Then in the middle of the night we got the call. It was about 10 p.m. when we finally got to the plane and we flew straight to St. Croix. It was a long flight.”
Her team didn’t know what to expect when they arrived in St. Croix. All they knew was that they were taking patients to Dobbins Air Reserve Base, Georgia. When they landed, they had to make the best of the situation and adapt to treat the patients, their number one priority.
“We had to make plans on the aircraft when we landed in St. Croix because we didn’t know how many patients we were going to get or the extent of their injuries,” said Cooper, a native of Huntsville, Alabama. “So the people on the ground were doing triage and sending them to us one-by-one to get on the plane. By the end of the first mission we had 40 patients.”
Cooper, along with other aeromedical evacuation team members and Air Force medical personnel were on that flight to Dobbins. Medical personnel also stayed in St. Croix to provide relief and prepare for the next medical evacuation mission.
“They didn’t have very much there on the ground,” she said. “The members who were taking care of the patients were running on generators in a little hospital. Which is why we had to get them out so quickly.”
Several of the patients were elderly and others needed access to consistent electricity and medical support for dialysis treatments.
This was Cooper’s first humanitarian mission while she’s been in an AE technician for the past three years.
“When you see the look on their faces, they are just relieved they are going somewhere they can get the care they need,” she said. “It is really indescribable. A lot of the patients spoke minimal English, so they showed their gratitude by hugging me and shaking my hand.
Cooper said she felt such a sense of fulfillment from being a part of the AE team that helped respond to St. Croix.
“It was amazing to see how our job ties into getting patients back. They were so thankful we were able to get them back and it just made me feel really good. It made me think ‘now this is why you do what you do. This is why you train the way you do’.”
Initial training for an AE technician involves a month of classroom and then two weeks of practicing, then upgrade training at the home installation. However, AE technicians assigned to the 375th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron participate in frequent training missions, involving anywhere from three to four training missions a month. The Scott AE team is a part of operational AE missions about once a month for areas in the Pacific and from Joint Base Andrews.