Not everybody who fights in combat is a hero — and not every every hero in a war fights.
On an icy cold morning in upstate New York I was summoned to the office of my commander Captain Dwayne Staples for a meeting. “Close the door Erik.” he said. He told me that I was being transferred to MEDEVAC, short for medical evacuation. I had heard they that flew in the worst weather, under the worst conditions to save the wounded. I knew they never carried offensive weapons to protect themselves. Ever. The only real protection they had were brightly painted Red Crosses. I felt myself sink in my seat. The rest of what he said was a blur. He wished me luck and shook my hand. I said goodbye to my comrades, certain that this next year in Afghanistan was going to be the worst of my life. What had I done to deserve this?
They called themselves Dustoff, an old call sign from Vietnam that had stuck.
The medics would jump out of your aircraft and run full speed, straight into a minefield, or hanging like bait over top of a firefight, completely oblivious to the danger around them. Once an RPG went through a window in one of our helicopters, split the flight doc’s helmet in half perfectly and exited out the other window. He lived. I had been to Iraq twice, but I had never seen a “war” until then.
The medics in the back deal with absolute chaos. Burns, amputations, and massive trauma are commonplace. Soldiers, civilians, children and even the enemy are picked up. Bad guys shoot at our medics, and yet these people save the lives of insurgents with the same care that they give our own warriors. Would you risk your life to save a man who is trying to kill you? This was a new kind of courage, and insanity. This was a mission to save lives, not to take them.
No less the victim of circumstance, the crew chiefs share the cabin in the back of the helicopter. Some have recently graduated high school, having enlisted to fix helicopters and turn wrenches. Now they are thrust into the role of surgical assistant and combat lifesaver, passing medical equipment and performing CPR on kids who woke up that morning with the belief that they were going to live to see their grandchildren someday. “Don’t look back here!” they would tell me, trying to protect us pilots from their own private horror show. I rarely looked, and when I did—I usually regretted it.
Once I caught a glimpse of a young, redheaded kid being carried away outside my cockpit door. He stared right through me, my medic straddling him and pumping furiously on his chest, as four men carried the stretcher holding them into a waiting ambulance. We high fived when they made it and we buried our pain when they didn’t. The crew chief and the pilots were “volun-told” to join Dustoff, and we harbored a deep respect for those medics who asked for this kind of duty. The medics taught us by example. Our sons and daughters don’t deserve anything less than our best.
I found myself bonding with people like I never had before.
Here were more than just your typical, all-American conservative, God-fearing military types—a population of which I was most certainly a member. I met people of every political, economical and spiritual background. Your United States Army Air Ambulance crews are actually made up of ordinary, everyday people who just happen to be good at holding it together until the blades stop turning and the blood gets sprayed out of the back. The only pre-requisite is simple and unbending, you must be willing to place others lives above your own. They are not Special Forces, they are not super humans, they are people you pass unassumingly in your local grocery store. They are just like you. In a war that has divided our nation, this is a mission every American can be proud of.
We were an unlikely team. My instructor and mentor, Kenny, was my co-pilot. He insisted that I command the helicopter because it was my area and I was familiar with it. He was a proud Democrat and I was a staunch Republican. My medic Julia was a single Mom with a teenage son. She had marched against the war at one point. Now she was the toughest Mom in the Watapur, a.k.a. “The Valley of Death”. My crew chief David had never once performed a real hoist mission, whereby the medic rescued the wounded via a thin steel cable, in his life. Yet in the 60 hours that was this mission, he suddenly became the most experienced Dustoff crew chief in all of Afghanistan.
We were complete opposites and semi-strangers, thrown together, cut-off, alone, unarmed and under fire for three days. There were no politics to discuss, no religious debates, no hidden agendas, no hesitation, no discussion, just get the wounded no matter the cost. These days I can truly say that I love Kenny, David and Julia. It’s crazy to imagine that if the worst hadn’t happened that weekend, I would never have had the special blessing of adding them to my family. It’s amazing what American’s can accomplish when they take the focus off themselves and put it on others. Understand this… based on my experiences; most of you reading this who may have never even been in this situation—could do the same things that my crew did. It’s true. People rise to the challenge when pushed.
Here is another truth.
Somewhere tonight, four souls lay in the darkness, trying to sleep. Their radios are clipped to their belts; their boots are still laced up in their beds. They won’t shower for another 14 days. Back home these four people might never have associated with each other, but here they are closer than family. Young American Soldiers, Sailors, Marines and Airmen walk the dark hills tonight because they know that Dustoff will take extraordinary risks to save them, or die trying.
Not every “hero” in a war fights.
Read more in Dustoff 7-3: Saving Lives Under Fire in Afghanistan by Erik Sabiston
Photo: The U.S. Army/Flickr