06/30/09 — Report from Bagram: ER in the sky

View Archive

Report from Bagram: ER in the sky

By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on June 30, 2009 10:59 AM

News-Argus Video Report

Full Size


Aeromedical evacuation team member Tech. Sgt. Cam Vaillant helps transform the inside of a KC-135R Stratotanker into an emergency room-like setup. The KC-135R Stratotanker is not traditionally used as a flying hospital, but is being used to serve such a purpose due to its maneuverability and large cargo hold area.

BAGRAM AIR BASE, Afghanistan -- Curtis White remembers when a 19-year-old soldier gave him perspective.

It was during an aeromedical evacuation mission -- one of several the Air Force Reserve technical sergeant has been a part of since joining the military.

"He had no legs," the airman said, looking down. "Seeing something like that, it makes you think about all the little things we complain about. It makes you appreciate what you have."

White and other members of the 916th Air Refueling Wing have already completed one trip from Ramstein Air Force Base, Germany, to Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, and back.

Their mission: To transport wounded troops out of the desert via a modified KC-135R Stratotanker, with the help of a medical team from Ramstein.

Over the next several weeks, the crew is expected to bring dozens of patients to topnotch health care as quickly as possible.

Lt. Col. (Dr.) Ed San Miguel, an emergency room doctor from Wilmington, has been on this mission before, and called it "by far" the most fulfilling assignment he has been a part of since joining the military 20 years ago.

"To me, it's a sense of duty," he said. "It's something I owe to my country."

Master Sgt. William Norris, one of the crew's boom operators, agrees.

The mission, he said, is "one of the most rewarding" he can fathom -- and one he welcomes, despite having to leave friends and family behind.

"It's been a challenge for my family," Norris said. "My wife is getting tired enough of it."

The KC-135 is primarily used to refuel fighter aircraft from the skies.

But before this particular Stratotanker left Ramstein, it was transformed into something more.

"It's like an ambulance, only it flies," said Lt. Col. James Martin, commander of the medical team that accompanied the 916th crew on their first trip to Bagram. "The capabilities it gives us are just incredible."

By the time the tanker left Germany, Martin likened its interior to a "fully-functioning ER" -- complete with advanced life support equipment, medication, cardiac drugs, ventilators, oxygen tanks, bandages and more.

"It's got to be self-sufficient," he said.

And it has to get out of the combat zone safely.

That is where Airman 1st Class Victor Olazaball comes in.

He is one of the maintainers charged with keeping the aircraft fit to fly -- a mission he knows is "no fail."

"When I first (joined the 916th), it was nerve-wracking," the 20-year-old crew chief said about working on a multimillion-dollar tanker. "But you get used to it."

Martin hopes to never get used to treating his wounded comrades.

He longs for an end to their suffering -- for an American victory against global terrorism and an end to both wars.

But as long as his nation's fighting force needs care, he will continue to sign up for separation from his wife and 7-year-old daughter -- knowing that the sacrifices he is making are far less than those of the men and women on the front lines.

"These are young men and women who, at a moment's notice, are willing to lay down their lives. What they are doing, it's incredible," he said. "On this aircraft, we can accommodate 36 including our team. But I hope to God we never get to that point."

Want to see who the members of this aeromedical evacuation team are? Then buy today's News-Argus!