Medevac Teams Under Pressure In Afghanistan

by Daniel Russ on June 13, 2010

Afghanistan Medevac


And day after day they had scrambled to evacuate Afghans or Marines struck by bullets or blasted by bombs, including a mission that nearly took them to a landing zone where the Taliban had planted a second bomb, with hopes that an aircraft might land on it. The Marines had found the trap and directed the pilots to a safer spot.

A few days before the Marine was shot in the skull, after sandstorms had grounded aircraft, another call had come in. A bomb had exploded beside a patrol along the Helmand River. Two Marines were wounded. One was dying.

For hours the airspace had been closed; supervisors deemed the conditions too dangerous to fly. The crews wanted to evacuate the Marines. “I’ll go,” said Sgt. Jason T. Norris, a crew chief. “I’ll walk.”

A crew was given permission to try. Ordinarily, medevac flights take off with an older, experienced pilot in command and a younger aviator as co-pilot. The two take turns on the controls.

From Kandahar, the brigade commander, Col. William K. Gayler, ordered a change. This flight demanded experience. Chief Warrant Officer Joseph N. Callaway, who had nearly 3,000 flight hours, would replace a younger pilot and fly with Chief Warrant Officer Deric G. Sempsrott, who had nearly 2,000 hours.

Afghan sandstorms take many forms. Some drift by in vertical sheets of dust. Others spiral into spinning towers of grit. Many lash along the ground, obscuring vision. Powdered sand accumulates like snow.

This storm had another form: an airborne layer of dirt from 100 to 4,000 feet above the ground. It left a low-elevation slot through which the pilots might try to fly.

The Black Hawk lifted off in dimming evening light. It flew at 130 knots 30 to 40 feet above the ground, so low it created a bizarre sensation, as if the helicopter were not an aircraft, but a deafening high-speed train.

Ten minutes out, the radio updated the crew. One of the Marines had died. The crew chief, Sgt. Grayson Colby, sagged. He reached for a body bag. Then he slipped on rubber gloves and sat upright. There was still a man to save.

Just before a hill beside the river, Mr. Callaway banked the Black Hawk right, then abruptly turned left and circled. The helicopter leaned hard over. He looked down. A smoke grenade’s red plume rose, marking the patrol.

The Black Hawk landed beside dunes. Sergeant Bugh and Sergeant Colby leapt out.

A corporal, Brett Sayre, had been hit in the face by the bomb’s blast wave and debris. He staggered forward, guided by other Marines.

Sergeant Bugh examined him inside the Black Hawk. Corporal Sayre’s eyes were packed with dirt. He was large and lean, a fit young man sitting upright, trying not to choke on blood clotting and flowing from his mouth.

The sergeant asked him to lie down. The corporal waved his arm.

“You’re a Marine,” the sergeant said. “Be strong. We’ll get you out of here.”

Corporal Sayre rested stiffly on his right side.

Sergeant Colby climbed aboard. He had helped escort the dead Marine to the other aircraft. The Black Hawk took off, weaving through the air 25 feet off the ground, accelerating into haze.

The corporal was calm as Sergeant Colby cut away his uniform, looking for more wounds. Sergeant Bugh suctioned blood from his mouth. He knew this man would live. But he looked into his dirtied eyes. “Can you see?” he asked.

“No,” the corporal said.

At the trauma center later, the corporal’s eyes reacted to light.

A Race to Treatment

Now the crew was in the air again, this time with the Marine shot in the skull. Sergeant Colby performed CPR. The man had no pulse.

Kneeling beside the man, encased in the roaring whine of the Black Hawk’s dual engines, the sergeants took turns at CPR. Mr. Sempsrott flew at 150 knots — as fast as the aircraft would go.

The helicopter came to a rolling landing at Camp Dwyer. Litter bearers ran the Marine inside.

The flight’s young co-pilot, First Lt. Matthew E. Stewart, loitered in the sudden quiet. He was calmly self-critical. It had been a nerve-racking landing zone, a high-speed approach to evacuate a dying man and a descent into a firefight. He said he had made a new pilot’s mistake.

He had not rolled the aircraft into a steep enough bank as he turned. Then the helicopter’s nose had pitched up. The aircraft had risen, climbing to more than 200 feet from 70 feet and almost floating above a gunfight, exposed.

Mr. Sempsrott had taken the controls and completed the landing. “I was going way too fast for my experience level,” the lieutenant said, humbly.

No one blamed him; this, the crew said, was how young pilots learned. And everyone involved understood the need to move quickly. It was necessary to evade ground fire and to improve a dying patient’s odds.

Beside the helicopter, inside a tent, doctors kept working on the Marine.

Sergeant Colby sat, red-eyed. He had seen the man’s wound. Soon, he knew, the Marine would be moved to the morgue. Morning had not yet come to the United States. In a few hours, the news would reach home.

“A family’s life has been completely changed,” the lieutenant said. “And they don’t even know it yet.”


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