Capital Region Soldiers Speed Injured Troops to Recovery
By Spc. Justin Nieto, USA
Special to American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, Mar. 11, 2005 While troops stationed in the National Capital Region are a good distance from Iraq geographically, the war there is right in front of Washington-based soldiers helping to receive wounded troops at Andrews Air Force Base, Md.
Army and Air Force servicemembers work side by side in caring for wounded troops about to be bused from Andrews Air Force Base, Md., to a Washington-area military hospital. Air Force photo
(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.
"People ask me many times, 'How can you do the job?'" said Army Col. Barry A. Searle, head of the Military District of Washington team responsible for medical evacuation from Andrews to stateside hospitals.
"It's not something I necessarily enjoy, but I do get a lot of satisfaction from it, because you get to help people," said the Pennsylvania guardsman, minutes away from beginning another unloading and transportation mission.
Searle said he began working in the National Guard Bureau here after returning from Bosnia in 2002. "It was then determined they needed a team out here (at Andrews) to assist the Air Force," said Searle, explaining how his team formed. "The medical staff here -- and you can't say enough about what a good job the Air Force is doing -- was overwhelmed."
The colonel is in charge of a "MECH" operations team. MECH is military shorthand for "medical evacuation to a continental United States hospital." Team members assist wherever they can, working long hours, unloading troops wounded in the global war on terrorism, answering servicemembers' questions, and making sure they provide the best possible care to the 900 or so troops arriving monthly.
"For me it's like family helping family," said Army Sgt. 1st Class Matt-Calvin Phair, with the MDW personnel office. "It's like welcoming my brothers and sisters back home."
Phair said it's also an opportunity to thank wounded troops for their dedication, service and sacrifice. "It's nice to see them smile and let them know, 'Hey, we're all in this together,'" he said.
On an evening in February, the crew moved out to welcome some more of their injured comrades home. As the plane bearing the wounded made its landing, buses filled with personnel from the different service branches made preparations for the troops' transportation from the chilly, wind-blasted flight line.
The plane, a C-141 Starlifter, lowered the cargo ramp and the crew went to work. Two people carry each of the injured troops to the opening of the ramp, where two more people wait to assist.
Each four-person crew then makes its way down the ramp to a bus parked with the back door open, ready to receive the patients and secure them aboard for a ride back to the hospital.
Many of the injured stay at the aeromedical staging facility at the base overnight en route to a hospital, but they are well accommodated during their short time there.
On every bed and cot, there is a hand-made quilt, sewn and donated from somewhere in the United States. One quilt with the pattern of an American flag has the words "War on Terrorism" stitched on the corner.
The troops also have access to a special multimedia room, designed just for them, complete with a big-screen television, laptop computers with access to the Internet and e-mail, personal hygiene items, clothes, books and magazines.
Air Force Maj. Kelly Lorenzo of the Andrews aeromedical staging facility said the entire focus is on caring for the injured and making them feel at home during their stay. "A lot of them feel guilty," said Lorenzo. "All they want to do is get back out there and help.
"I had one Marine who thought he could still (exercise)," continued Lorenzo, smiling. "So I see him doing push-ups and yell, 'You can't do that! Do you know what my general will do to me if he sees a guy with a stomach wound trying to do push-ups?'" she said.
After their brief stay at Andrews, the wounded troops are taken to their assigned hospitals, either by airplane if they are leaving this area or by ambulance if they are going to a facility in or near Washington, such as Walter Reed Army Medical Center here or the National Naval Medical Center, in Bethesda, Md.
Army Private 1st Class Jason Gross, a medic stationed at Walter Reed, said he tries not to dwell on what he sees every day, but it sometimes hits close to home. "I've actually had to transport a few of my friends I graduated (from) high school with," said Gross. "Thankfully they've all recuperated just fine."
Gross doesn't treat his old school buddies any differently from the other patients he has to transport -- because he treats every patient with a high level of care. "I pretty much do whatever it takes to help get them to the hospital," said Gross. "Whatever it takes."
(Army Spc. Justin Nieto writes for the Military District of Washington News Service.)