Our Military Medical Personnel: Dedication and Courage (UPDATES)

UPDATE II:

It is not clear from subsequent reports on the Blackhawk helicopter crash last Thursday in Helmand province, Afghanistan, whether the four crew members killed were medics or crew in a helicopter flying along a medevac helicopter on a mission to pick up Afghan policemen wounded in a bombing.

Regardless, the helicopter was a “fallen angel” in aviation parlance and the four crewmembers were all heroes.

The boots, rifles and flight helmets in the photo above represent Chief Warrant Officer 2 Nicholas Johnson, 27, San Diego; Spc. Dean Shaffer, 23, Pekin, Ill.; Chief Warrant Officer 2 Don Viray, 25, Waipahu, Hawaii; and Spc. Chris Workman, 33, Boise, Idaho.

The soldiers were with 2nd Battalion, 25th Aviation Regiment, Task Force Hammerhead out of Hawaii, flying for the 25th Combat Aviation Brigade in Afghanistan.

They were mourned and remembered at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan yesterday.

(Please go here to view a series of touching images of the ceremony and to get a glimpse of who these heroes were)

Today, the Stars and Stripes reported that the Black Hawk helicopter “was likely shot down by insurgents, according to sources with knowledge of the crash.”

Read more here.

Image: Courtesy Stars and Stripes

UPDATE I:

The Defense Department confirms that four International Security Assistance Force members killed in a helicopter crash in southern Afghanistan yesterday were Americans.

According to the Stars and Stripes:

The UH-60L Blackhawk went down in Garmsir district around 9:40 p.m. while on a mission to pick up the wounded Afghans. The New York Times reported that four Afghan police officers had been killed and seven others wounded in a suicide attack at a police checkpoint, and that the American helicopter was flying to the scene to take the wounded to a nearby hospital.

However, Pentagon spokesman Navy Capt. John Kirby, who returned this week from approximately two months’ duty in Afghanistan, said no information is yet available on the mission the helicopter crew was performing. “We still believe that weather was the principal cause [of the accident],” Kirby said.

Original Post:

The courage, dedication, selflessness and, yes, heroism of combat medics are legendary — the stuff that books are written about, movies made of …

The review of just one such book
, “Medic: Saving Lives – From Dunkirk to Afghanistan,” perhaps says it best:

Their job is to put themselves in the heart of danger – to run into battle to rescue the wounded and to risk their own lives to try and save the dying. Doctors, nurses, medics and stretcher bearers go where the bullets are thickest, through bomb alleys and mine fields, ducking mortars and rockets, wherever someone is hit and the shout goes up – ‘Medic! We need a medic over here!’ War at its rawest is their domain, an ugly place of shattered bodies, severed limbs, broken heads and death. This is the story of those brave men – and, increasingly in this day and age, women – who go to war armed with bandages not bombs, scalpels not swords, and put saving life above taking life. Many have died in the process, the ultimate sacrifice for others. But wherever the cry of ‘Medic!’ is heard, it will be answered. From the beaches of Dunkirk to the desert towns of Afghanistan, there can be no nobler cause.

Two stories in the news, almost back to back, drive these words poignantly home.

First, there is the breaking news that “Four American soldiers rushing to give medical help to wounded troops are feared dead after their Medevac helicopter crashed Thursday night in Helmand Province.”

According to the Stars and Stripes, the UH-60L Blackhawk was on a mission to pick up Afghan soldiers wounded by a bomb. The cause of the crash is still under investigation.

Other reports, while saying that those on board were likely Americans, could not confirm whether they had been killed or wounded.

Three days ago, a USA Today story made the point in a graphic way.

Imagine you are a military doctor, nurse or medic and a wounded soldier has just been brought in from the battlefield with an unexploded ordnance embedded in his body.

What do you do?

In the case of Army Staff Sgt. Ben Summerfield and Lt. Cmdr. James Gennari, you just go to work and carefully, very carefully, remove the ordnance from the soldier’s body — in this case the soldier is Marine Cpl. Winder Perez and the unexploded ordnance is a rocket-propelled grenade!

What does one say and think under those circumstances?

According to USA Today:

“I took his hand. Held it in mine. And said… ‘I promise you I won’t leave you until that thing is out of your leg,’ ” Lt. Cmdr. Gennari recalls.

“I really did know that thing could have blown up,” Gennari says. “But I figured I would leave that up to God.”

[::]

During all that, Gennari noticed that Perez’s dog tag said he was Catholic. “I’m Catholic,” the nurse says. “So I said a prayer… for (Perez), for me and for the EOD guy.”

Although operations to remove an explosive device from a servicemember’s body are rare, “it’s a big enough concern that in recent weeks guidelines on how to perform the delicate surgery have been issued for doctors in Afghanistan.”

The guidelines — at times gruesome — offer a primer on bomb triggers, recommend body armor for surgeons and warn against shifting the patient because of fear of detonation. A bomb disposal expert should be there, and the surgery should be isolated to guard against killing other patients and destroying equipment. Use only hand saws for cutting bone, because electronic tools could set off the bomb.

Research published in 1999 documented 36 such operations since the beginning of World War II. None of the explosives have gone off.

USA Today adds:

The same was true in January. The nearly 2-foot-long rocket that had struck Perez on Jan. 12 in Helmand province, lay along the length of his thigh muscles with its tip thrust inside his left buttock, says Navy Capt. H. Donel Elshire, a doctor on duty.

Numerous books have been published about our combat medics.

Another example, “Doc: Heroic Stories of Medics, Corpsmen, And Surgeons in Combat.”

The most decorated soldier in World War I was not Sergeant Alvin York, as many believe, but a stretcher bearer named Charles Denver Barger. And Barger is just one of the legions of military medical personnel whose lifesaving feats are remembered in this inspiring volume. A tribute to those who tend the sick and wounded under the toughest conditions, Doc is made up of the sometimes humorous, often harrowing, and always heartfelt memoirs of quick-thinking medics and heroic nurses, of surgeons and physicians equipped with only the tools of mercy, performing acts of great courage.

To see a partial list of similar books, please browse here.

Image: Courtesy Google Books

Author: DORIAN DE WIND, Military Affairs Columnist

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2 Comments

  1. Sounds like something to take the bad taste out of our mouth of all the “bad apple” disgraces.

    Quakers and other anti-war people often served in this capacity. Some wouldn’t, of course, because they thought this helped perpetuate the violence when the soldier returned to the battle field.

    Even without this dramatic situation, these heros put their lives on the line just getting to the wounded and being so close to the fighting. They are the best of the best.

  2. Thanks for the comment, TO.

    Here’s a book about one of those Conscientious Objectors who went on to serve and ended up being a hero, being awarded our nation’s highest honors.

    “The Unlikeliest Hero” by Booton Herndon

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