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Helicopters Keep Medics on Top of Desert Dangers

By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service

FORT IRWIN, Calif., July 8, 1999 – Windswept rocks, sand and brush rim the narrow, two-lane asphalt strip that stretches 35 miles north from Interstate 15 to the main gate here. There are no buildings, no lights, no crossroads, and only the occasional winding curve, to slow you down.

Motorists traveling Fort Irwin Road too often forget they're no longer on the 70-mph highway, forget about oncoming traffic and the soft, sandy shoulders that can seize their tires like a hawk grabbing a prairie dog and often, tragically, with the same deadly result.

You can't miss the crosses. They mark the sites where drivers drove too fast and lost control or didn't know they weren't alone until it was too late to avoid a head-on collision. Some of the crosses are decked with children's toys that won't be played with anymore.

The luckier survivors of these and other accidents in the vast, untamed Southern California desert can thank the helicopters and crews that flew them to medical facilities. Part of the TRICARE Southern California provider network, a civilian air ambulance service whisks accident victims to the nearest emergency room.

When an accident involves more people than the civilian chopper can carry or when the weather turns foul, the Army takes charge, dispatching a big, all-weather UH-60 Black Hawk with an emergency medical technician on board. Aiding highway accident victims is part of the mission known as "Desert Dustoff" -- 45 soldiers flying Black Hawks, often under extreme conditions.

"This unit performs more real-world medical evacuations under tougher conditions than any other unit in the Army," said Brig. Gen. William G. Webster Jr., National Training Center commander.

Primarily, the Army Air Ambulance Detachment evacuates soldiers injured while training in "the box," several hundred square miles of inhospitable desert mountain terrain that can toss a tank like a Tinkertoy. And when soldiers and family members need urgent critical care not available at the Weed Army Community Hospital, the detachment airlifts them day or night in any weather to hospitals in San Bernardino and Palm Springs, more than 100 miles away.

The Black Hawk crews and medics train to operate in and over the rugged terrain. They're certified to perform in pitch-black darkness wearing night-vision goggles. They average 17 missions a month. In July 1998 alone, they flew 47 missions and evacuated 55 patients. Over the past two years, they've flown more than 400 successful evacuation missions.

They respond rapidly.

"We have one crew on duty -- first-up -- that can respond in 10 minutes," said Maj. Alain Perrone, detachment commander. "Another crew -- second-up -- is on 15-minute recall during duty hours and one-hour recall after duty hours. During high-risk periods -- a brigade-size jump, for example -- we can stand up third-up and fourth-up flights."

It's good duty for Army medics -- the unit doesn't deploy and the mission challenges them to think and act quickly and decisively. Because the mission is so demanding, in fact, newcomers don't get to fly right away.

"When medics arrive here, we evaluate them to decide what kind of training they need," said Sgt. Rob Walter, flight medic and instructor. Training can last one day or three months, depending on their past experience. "We don't start on medical training until they're flight qualified. Then, we qualify them to the ER- level of expertise -- what we call 'Readiness Level 1.'"

On board the Black Hawks, the medics stow life support equipment, bandages, fluids and medicine -- enough for almost any contingency. A "life pack" contains an electrocardiograph and a defibrillator, which "jump-starts" stopped hearts. A collection of splints ranges from flexible metal ones coated with foam rubber to others that harden when air inside them is vacuumed out.

Mostly the flying medics see and treat environmental injuries -- snake bites, dehydration and heat exhaustion, but they're prepared for much worse. And on or off the sprawling desert post, they deliver care wherever and whenever it's needed.

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageArmy medics carry a litter-bound "patient" to a waiting UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter during a training demonstration at Fort Irwin, Calif. The post's Army Air Ambulance Detachment has flown more than 400 successful evacuation missions the past two years. Photo by Douglas J. Gillert.  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageA pile of rocks near the main gate of Fort Irwin, Calif., has become a memorial to Army units that have traveled from around the world to hone their warfighting skills at the National Training Center. While at the sprawling desert base, they face hazards ranging from heat exhaustion to tank accidents, but a team of emergency medical technicians, backed by UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters configured for aeromedical evacuation, helps them stay fighting fit. Photo by Douglas J. Gillert.  
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