AL ASAD, Iraq -- Marines know that in a combat zone corpsmen can save their lives, but in Iraq the Navy is not the only branch saving Marines. Soldiers are also putting themselves in harms way to help others.
The soldiers of the 45th Medical Company (Air Ambulance), a joint asset to 2nd Marine Aircraft Wing (Forward), provide aerial medical evacuation and transportation of medical personnel, blood and equipment.
“We’re an Army Aero-Medical unit fully integrated into the Marine Air Ground Task Force,” said Army Maj. Robert A. Kneeland, the 45th Medical Company commanding officer. “Because of the innovative efforts of Marine aviation here in Iraq, it has really evolved beyond simply joint operations. Army (Medical Evacuation) has become inter-operable and to some degree even inter-dependent with Marine aviation in (Multi-national Forces-West).”
The 45th Medical Company is the fifth medical evacuation company since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom to be deployed in support of the Marine Expeditionary Force, according to Kneeland.
“The Marines treat us just like one of their own squadrons, support us to the fullest extent possible, and synchronize our operations with the other aviation supporting MNF-W,” said Kneeland. “The relationship has steadily built over time. It is a great and unique relationship and we feel truly blessed to be part of the team.”
The Germany-based company, known as “Bavarian DustOff”, is split into three main platoons: the headquarters platoon, flight platoon and the maintenance platoon.
The headquarters handles the operations of the company and the aircraft refueling.
“Flight operations controls everything from the flight logs to the missions and is manned 24-7,” said Army 1st Sgt. John Waldbaum, the 45th Medical Company first sergeant. “Our fuel section is also manned 24-7.”
The members of the flight platoon are broken into crews containing two pilots, a crew chief and flight medic. Three crews are on duty for 72 hours; the first crew is on call, the second is used for transfer between hospitals and the third acts as a back-up. The crews rotate after each day and are relieved by another shift of three crews after the 72 hours.
“In this unit, everything is built around the flight medic, in a sense, he’s like the aircraft’s primary weapons system” said Waldbaum. “The crew chief owns the airplane; the medic owns the mission and specially-trained pilots are charged to get that medic as quickly and safely as possible to the point of injury to save lives.”
In the Army, the medical field is huge, but being a flight medic is a specialty that only a few get to experience, according to Army Sgt. Michael M. Dreiling, a flight medic for the 45th Medical Company.
“Some of us work in the hospitals or a clinic, and then there are very few select of us who fly around in the helicopter,” explained Dreiling. “It is an unbelievably rewarding job. When I was stationed at Al Qaim, it was the first time that I had a leader of any sort shake my hand for the work I have done for a (service member).”
Although a flight medic’s primary mission is the responsibility of the patient, they must also be an extra pair of eyes on the aircraft.
“Flying to and from (a mission), we are right at the window, so we are responsible from 12 o’clock to 6 o’clock to view other aircraft, obstacles, enemy fire below and everything. We are not just medics, we are the eyes too. There are eight eyes on the aircraft and we have two of them.”
The other set of eyes are the ones that ensure everything is mechanically stable on the helicopter. Any maintenance issue on the helicopter is the sole responsibility of the crew chief, according to Army Sgt. Matthew Grove, a UH-60 Blackhawk crew chief with the 45th Medical Company.
“A Blackhawk crew chief maintains the bird and ensures the inspections are good and takes care of any unscheduled maintenance,” said Grove. “If something breaks while in flight, we have to make sure it gets reported.”
While in flight, the crew chief is the expert on the helicopter’s capabilities.
“I think (flying with the helicopter) is critical because (the crew chief) has the hands-on experience,” said Grove. “There are a lot of times where the pilot will ask questions, so you are the go-to-guy for the status of the bird. They know the aircraft, but each bird’s strengths and weaknesses, that’s where the crew chief comes in. They have to trust you, that is why you have to stay on top of your game.”
Just like the medic is an extra pair of eyes in a flight, the crew chief becomes a helping hand to the medic.
“When we get casualties, we are an extra set of hands, helping the medic,” said Grove. “He is like the doctor and we are the nurses. We do as much as we can because that’s our money right there, if we don’t save those guys, that’s unacceptable.”
When the crew receives a call for a medical evacuation, it only takes them 7 to 10 minutes to get in the air, according to Army Chief Warrant Officer 2 Joseph Fay, a medical evacuation pilot for the 45th Medical Company.
“When we get the call, one of the pilots and the medic will go and get the (information),” said Fay. “The medic will ask any kind of questions he needs to know as far as litter and priority. The other pilot and the crew chief will get out and (prepare the helicopter). Then we start the aircraft, put the grid in the GPS and head right for it. We can be there and back in 30-40 minutes tops.”
Although the flight platoon is on the frontlines, the maintenance platoon is the group behind the scenes, ensuring that the helicopters are ready to fly.
“The maintenance platoon has 20-30 people available,” said Grove. “We always rely on those guys to help us.”
The company’s aviation unit maintenance platoon consists of Blackhawk helicopter repairmen, avionics technicians, structural mechanics, powerplant mechanics, technical supply personnel, and various other skill sets specializing on the UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter.
The company currently has helicopters spread throughout the Al Anbar Province. Since October, the company has flown more than 700 supporting MNF-W combat operations.
“Success is hard to rate sometimes, but if you could I would give us an A plus,” said Dreiling. “We haven’t lost anybody or any aircraft and our mission reaction time is unbelievable. Every crew that I have been on (has taken off) under 10 minutes.”