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Why We Serve: Combat Medic Saves Lives Using New Evacuation System

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Oct. 12, 2007 – A veteran Air Force combat medic helped to transform the way wounded troops are treated and evacuated during a recent deployment to Afghanistan.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
Air Force Tech. Sgt. Mark A. DeCorte is participating in the Defense Department’s “Why We Serve” public-outreach program. Photo by Gerry J. Gilmore

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Tech Sgt. Mark A. DeCorte recalled the previous practice when unarmed battlefield medics were flown in to treat and evacuate injured servicemembers usually after an area had been cleared of the enemy.

However, DeCorte emphasized, “When you have a wounded soldier on the ground, they need help now.”

DeCorte is among a group of 10 servicemembers who served in Iraq, Afghanistan or the Horn of Africa who have been selected to tell the military’s story to the American people at community, business, veteran’s and other gatherings as part of the Defense Department’s “Why We Serve” public outreach program.

Why We Serve began last fall and was originally the idea of former Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Marine Gen. Peter Pace. Representatives from all the service branches participate in the program, which is conducted in quarterly segments. DeCorte and the other nine servicemembers in his group constitute the fifth iteration since the program began.

“I think the program is awesome,” DeCorte said, noting that Americans need to hear the success stories and sacrifices of U.S. servicemembers deployed overseas in the war against terrorism.

The concept of treating and evacuating injured servicemembers during the din of battle was tested during DeCorte’s tour of duty in Afghanistan from February to June 2006, the 13-year military veteran said.

The Army had requested Air Force assistance to improve its air-ambulance capabilities in Afghanistan’s austere, mountainous terrain, DeCorte explained.

Previous doctrine was to send in medical-evacuation helicopters after the fighting had stopped, he noted, but this practice meant that some troops wouldn’t survive the trip to the hospital. That procedure would change.

In Afghanistan, DeCorte was one of several military medics embedded with aerial combat-support units. Instead of using traditional rotary- or fixed-wing aircraft marked with red crosses, the new wave combat medics carried arms as they flew directly into the maelstrom aboard armored helicopter gunships.

The idea, DeCorte explained, was to treat the wounded as quickly as possible. And, when the concept was tested on the battlefield, it contributed to achieving a previously unimagined wounded-survivability rate of 90 percent, he said.

“We can now go in embedded (with combat units) and part of the operation,” DeCorte said.

And instead of the famous but fragile UH-1 “Huey” helicopters that were used to evacuate wounded U.S. troops during the Vietnam War, DeCorte and his fellow medics today fly into action aboard HH-60-G Pave Hawk helicopters, the same aircraft favored by U.S. Special Operations troops.

“What that led to is a brand-new capability,” DeCorte pointed out, noting that the Pave Hawks’ specialized equipment enables nighttime, as well as daytime, medical evacuations.

“We can come in with weapons,” DeCorte said. “We can actually get the wounded as they’re being wounded.”

A servicemember’s odds of surviving battlefield-inflicted wounds go way up if he or she can be evacuated to a treatment center within an hour of being injured, DeCorte pointed out. In medical parlance that period of time is known as “the golden hour,” he said.

“If I can get you to surgery within an hour you most likely have a chance to survive,” DeCorte said.

The Minot, N.D.-born noncommissioned officer saved 36 lives during his 63 combat sorties in southern Afghanistan. “It’s very bad in that area,” DeCorte observed, adding that two of his fellow combat medics on other air-evacuation flights saved another 102 lives between them.

When not saving lives, the air-ambulance crews also performed aerial resupply and other support missions not traditionally performed by combat medics, DeCorte said.

DeCorte’s wife, Lorretta, also is an Air Force medic. Although family life can sometimes get hectic with four children and military deployments, DeCorte said he’s in the military for the long haul.

“I don’t want to sit in the rear. I need to put my uniform on and get there in the fight and bring those soldiers home,” he concluded.

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