I originally wrote this post on 28JUN11.
Working for the USO and being one of those rare breeds on base we like to call females, I get to see some cool things. I’ve flown on a Marine logistics flight to other FOBs, I’ve ridden in an MRAP and I’ve taken a tour with the PJs.
PJs are Pararescue Jumpers. These men are in the US Airforce Special Operations, and they are responsible for the recovery and medical treatment of the wounded in a combat environment. (I knew all that but wikipedia just said it more concisely). These are called MEDEVAC missions (medical evacuation). They have to go to a specialized school for 2 years. They must complete airborne school, survival school, underwater training, free fall parachutist school, and paramedic training among others. Their motto is, “That Others May Live.” They are basically badasses who save lives on a regular basis.
A couple months ago my coworker Duane and I got to tour their Black Hawks. A PJ named Daniel gave us the tour and showed us all the equipment they use (I was shocked at how little there was, I remember even saying, “This is all it takes to save a life? Any problem you have these few machines can fix?” He said, “yes.” ) I put on his “kit” (bulletproof vest with attachments) on. I nearly fell over from the weight and Daniel responded, “you don’t even have the ruck on yet.” So then I put the ruck sack on. It was so heavy, and he puts all this on and then squats or bends over to work on a patient. They literally slide down a rope out of a chopper to get on the ground and save a troops life who has just been shot or blown up. Then they throw them in the chopper and go. Daniel had a large saw, I asked him what it was for, he said British “litters” (cots they put patients on) are longer than American litters and don’t fit on the plane, so they have to cut them down to size. Of course since we’re in a warzone there is a 50 caliber gun and a Airman’s job who is to be the “gunner.” Daniel told us a story of once the pilot was shot in the leg and he had to take his ruck and kit off and maneuver himself to slide up and over through to the cockpit to work on the pilot’s leg while they were flying back to KAF.
I was so grateful for the tour and for what they do. As we were walking back to get a bottle of water after the tour all of their pagers went off and they took off sprinting toward the choppers. We got to see them all suit up efficiently and quickly and take off within 2 minutes to go save another life. It was AMAZING.
Last night, my running coach, Capt. Simmons gave my coworker Randy and I a tour of CASF. This is the area where they hold the wounded warriors near the flight line until a flight is ready for them to get on to be transported to a more equipped hospital in Bagram (Kabul, Afghanistan) or Landstuhl hospital in Germany. After taking a tour, Simmons talked his way into letting us up in the control tower on the flight line. We could see all of KAF. It was breathtaking. It is HUGE. It is a city. We watched C130s, and Chinooks fly by. They say Kandahar Air Field has the busiest runway in the world. It was crazy to be that close to airplanes that were constantly taking off and landing.
While we were standing on the catwalk outside the tower, two Black Hawks approached. Simmons told us they were a MEDEVAC mission coming in. We watched two ambulances wait on the flightline while the two choppers landed. PJs jumped out and carried the litters to the people waiting on the ground who put the wounded warriors in the ambulance (glorified humvee) and drove them the few feet to Role 3. Role 3 is the emergency and critical care hospital. Role 2 would be where you go for a sinus infection or the flu. They didn’t seem very hurried so we took that as a good sign that the troops weren’t hurt too badly. Simmons found out today they were Bravo, Alpha is the most critical that’s gun shot wounds or IEDs, Bravo is not as hurt. As we watched the PJs jump back in and the choppers slicing through the air I thought of how I saw them at the beginning and the end. The thing is I never want to see the middle. I thought of my friends who have been MEDEVACd the ones who have died and the one who have lived. How terrifying of a flight that must be.
Randy and I both said we could stand on that catwalk for hours and watch all the planes fly by. We started to make our way around the catwalk and back indoors when Simmons pointed out Mortuary Affairs to us. It is situated right behind the Role 3. He pointed to the connexes where they keep the heroes (that is what they refer to the deceased as). Simmons told us how sometimes mortuary affairs will go greet the PJs instead of Role 3. That broke my heart. Simmons even talked about how a few times he has volunteered over there to iron flags. Just thinking about the incredible strength it would take to fill a metal box with ice to place a killed troop in, to iron the flag that will cover his final resting place, to say goodbye to a face that his own mother probably doesn’t even know is dead yet. I took it all in.
Tonight Randy and I attended a ramp ceremony for 3 Marine heroes and 1 Army hero. Before when I attended ramps I just felt a numbing sorrow. This time I could picture it every step of the way, from the PJs getting the call, to the flight in, and the Role 3 and mortuary affairs. It gave me some small sense of comfort to know that every single step of the way there were people trying with every last millimeter of their bodies’ limits to honor that troop. The pilot of the chopper was racing to get to him, the medic on the ground was racing to keep him alive, the PJs were desperately trying to keep him going on the flight to Role 3, the doctors there tried their hardest too, and then mortuary affairs tried their best to prepare the body. And me, well I’m a part of it too, because I’m trying my hardest with every ounce in my body to stand tall, place my hand over my heart while Amazing Grace plays, and honor that hero.
Tomorrow I will write 4 new names on my hand when I run. That’s one way I have found to honor them. I encourage you to find a way. When you send cookies to the troops deployed, adopt a soldier through Soldiers' Angels, make cards for our troops to send home through Operation Write Home, write a sister’s boyfriend’s best friend’s cousin who is deployed, donate to an organization that supports Wounded Warriors, thank any troop you see anywhere for their service, that’s how you can honor them.
I’ve seen the beginning and I’ve seen the ending, and I think both are in God’s hands. It’s the middle, what you do with it, that’s what counts.