Medevac company prepares to help U.S., allies and enemies injured in Afghanistan

By Rose Schneider

Dreams and goals can come from anywhere, but 1st Lt. Justin Stewart’s are literally on the horizon.

Stewart is a section leader in the medevac (short for medical evacuation) company of the General Support Aviation Battalion. The unit, part of the Combat Aviation Brigade of the 1st Infantry Division, will be deploying to Afghanistan in August.

“Growing up I always knew I wanted to fly something,” Stewart said. “My grandfather had flown medevac during Vietnam, so that was an inspiration for me. I wanted to follow in his footsteps.”

Stewart’s grandfather deployed with the 82nd Medical Company Air Ambulance out of Fort Hood before his aviation brigade was redesignated and moved to Fort Riley. He deployed with the same company and flight patch as Stewart will in August, which makes his brief stop at Fort Riley in preparation for deployment that much more important.

Before coming to Fort Riley, Stewart attended flight school at the Aviation Center of Excellence at Fort Rucker, Ala., and has been in Kansas since April. At the aviation center he learned basic flight tasks, and he built upon those skills at Fort Riley.

“As you complete tasks showing proficiency you get down to Readiness Level 1, which is mission ready,” he said. “I am excited to be here and to deploy.”

The majority of what Stewart has been preparing for is what the Army calls “the golden hour.”

“The golden hour is the hour from the time we receive the mission to the time we need to have [the patients] at a medical facility,” said Maj. Brent Gruver, commander of the medevac unit. “To meet that goal, the secretary of defense has us spread out with other medevac units to be able to get to certain areas in the country within that time period.”

Gruver said the Army “constantly has crews 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, 365 days a year on alert” to ensure that when there’s an emergency, as many lives will be saved as possible.

“The latest stats I saw showed about a 91-percent survival rate, which is the highest out of every other war,” Gruver said.

Stewart’s job duties during deployment will vary but will mostly be limited to administrative duties and flying.

“When we’re flying, we are responsible for the aircraft and whoever is inside at the time,” Stewart said. “A Blackhawk can carry 11 infantry passengers, but ours aren’t set up for that. We took out all of the seats so we can lay litter patients on the floor.”

In addition to the two medevac pilots, each aircraft has a medic and a crew chief on board. During a mission the average number of injured passengers will be between three and five, however that number can also fluctuate depending on the severity of the passengers’ injuries.

“The condition of the patient determines how many we can fit in the aircraft,” Gruver said. “Usually we will launch more aircrafts to spread out the workload so we don’t overwork the medics.”

The medics receive intense training in many aspects of war before deployment, just as the pilots do.

“We train our medics to the highest level — all of our medics are at a minimum EMTs — some are some are EMT basic, EMT paramedics and all have advanced cardiac and trauma skills and pediatric skills,” Gruver said. “Our medics are some of the best trained medics in the Army.”

Stewart, and other medevac pilots like him, do not have any medical training outside of the basic training each soldier receives. However, medevac pilots do receive extensive training for the conditions they’re likely to encounter, including dealing with casualties, high altitudes and extreme darkness. 

Despite his thorough training, he said he is not entirely sure how certain situations will feel when he’s actually in them.

“I think the most challenging part will be the types of patients we might pick up,” he said. “From what I’ve heard, picking up a child affects the crew in a particular way… a fear of mine is having to pick up a hurt child who is a casualty of war.”

According to Gruver, medevac units have no say in who they pick up for treatment and will respond to calls having to do with civilians, Afghan national security forces, and all NATO forces — not just American service members, but also British, Italian, Canadian and others — and even the enemy.

“We get the call and respond through the medical chain of command; there are rules that we follow to determine who is eligible for evacuation based on who they are and how they were injured,” Gruver said. “It is a big, long list, but once it comes to us those decisions have already been made so we just execute the mission.”

The flight conditions are also somewhat unpredictable regardless of training.

“One of the biggest things we talk about is the lack of ambient light out there; ambient light is what our night-vision goggles operate off of,” Stewart said. “They say it is extremely dark and dangerous to fly at times because sometimes you can’t see and there are mountains and hilltops, so you have to be extra cautious.”

Afghanistan also has what soldiers call “100 days of wind” where the wind combined with all of the sand, dust and dirt makes visibility nearly nonexistent.

“Along with the dark and the dust it gets really hot,” Gruver said. “In aviation we talk about being ‘high, hot and heavy.’ They are the three conditions that are detrimental to helicopters.”

Though Stewart is excited and curious about what his first deployment will bring, he said he is not excited to be away from his family for so long.

For Gruver, who has been deployed before, the hardest part about this mission will be “keeping everyone focused on the fact that this is a marathon, not a sprint.”

“It is hard to make sure that everyone is focused from day to day so everyone has the same standards at the end of deployment as at the beginning and that no one loses focus in the middle,” Gruver said.

Stewart and other medevac pilots will continue to do ground training with medics in preparation for their upcoming deployment, even while on leave.

“I am confident in all of the training I’ve received from my instructors,” Stewart said. “There will be people in our unit who have deployed one or more times and we’ll be able to rely on their deployment experiences to not get complacent.”

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