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Saving Lives in the sky: AES Reservists get the job done stateside, overseas

Capt. Barry Van Sickle, 446th Aeromedical Evaucation Squardon, secures stanchions on a C-17. Stanchions are used to support patient litters on aeromedical flights

Capt. Barry Van Sickle, 446th Aeromedical Evaucation Squardon, secures stanchions on a C-17. Stanchions are used to support patient litters on aeromedical flights

Capt. Kristina Forbes, a 446th Aeromedical Evaucation Squadron  flight nurse, cares for a patient during an aeromedical flight. Misisons can last as long as 24 hours and have up to 100 patients on board.

Capt. Kristina Forbes, a 446th Aeromedical Evaucation Squadron flight nurse, cares for a patient during an aeromedical flight. Misisons can last as long as 24 hours and have up to 100 patients on board.

McChord Air Force Base, Wash. -- Moving wounded American servicemembers from combat environments to hospitals in Germany and the United States is not an easy task, but one the 446th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron here has been doing since 2001.
Air Mobility Command officials report, as of July 8, 2005, the aeromedical evacuation system has flown more than 27,681 patients out of U.S. Central Command contingency areas into Europe since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The effort requires everything from treating patients in forward-deployed locations to airlifting and caring for them en route as they move to higher level medical facilities.
However, Reservists with 446th AES make it look easy.
The squadron’s wartime mission is to deploy aeromedical evacuation crews, trained and equipped to provide in-flight medical care aboard transport aircraft configured to airlift patients. It also deploys people to provide operational and mission management support at aerial ports or hubs supporting aeromedical evacuation operations.
During peacetime, the aeromedical specialist provide movement of ill or injured Department of Defense people and their family members, a direct by-product of the necessary training required to maintain equipment readiness and medical crew proficiency.
The 125-person squadron here includes flight nurses, medical technicians, medical service corps officers, administration technicians, logisticians and radio operators.
“There are two nurses and three technicians assigned to each flight crew,” said Lt. Col. Jan Moore-Harbert, the 446th AES commander.
“We also have personnel who work all the ground details as well,” said Colonel Moore-Harbert. “They coordinate with the medical staging facilities at every location to ensure patients are medically and administratively prepared for the flight and keep in contact with military airlift centers to track the missions and the crews.”
If there is a critically-injured patient, critical care air transport teams join the mix. The CCAT team, assigned to the 446th Aeromedical Transportation Staging Squadron here, has three members – a doctor, an intensive care nurse and a respiratory technician. Both teams work together to ensure the patient has the best in-flight care while being transported to another hospital.
While there is a long list of medical equipment approved for use on aircraft for patients with specific medical issues, most AES crews carry a standard equipment package.
“Our mandatory equipment list includes a cardiac monitor, suction, ambu bag (and) emergency response medications. We also carry a ventilator on all missions,” said Major Newhouse. “We want to be ready for anything.”
Before special medical equipment can be used for aeromedical evacuations, it must first be tested at the hyperbaric altitude chamber at Brooks Air Force Base, Texas.
“All equipment is tested before it is used in the field,” said Colonel Moore-Harbert. “We have to make sure it is compatible with high altitudes, sudden pressure changes, and anything else that could potentially happen in the aircraft.”
With training completed, equipment tested and aircraft ready, the 446 AES Reservists wait to be called into action.
For Maj. Nate Lathrop, a 446th AES flight nurse, the call informs him his crew will be going to Iraq and the expected load is four litters and nine ambulatory patients. But by the time they get there, it could be more.
After landing in Iraq, a nurse comes on board and tells the crew there will be 22 litter patients and two are in critical condition. Two patients received gun shot injuries and were on ventilators, and another patient was suffering from a hip fracture. Other patients had been injured by improvised explosive devices, causing multiple lacerations and injuries.
“It seems like most of the patients are 18 to 21 years old and too young to lose a foot, arm or lifestyle,” said Major Lathrop. “But they are very thankful and respectful. I even had patients offering to give up their litters to others if needed.”
When the crew finally lands in Germany, they have already been working for 23 hours. However, it would still take a few hours to off-load patients and put away the medical equipment.
After transferring the patients to the Germany hospital, the crew’s day is over. Major Lathrop and the other crew members go back to their hotel and wait to be called again.
“When I care for these young troops, I realize how good I really have it,” said Major Lathrop. “Even when our hours are long, there are no complaints from the crew. If we are needed to fly, we will fly.”