By Staff Sgt. Jeremy Wilson, 128th Air Refueling Wing
/ Published February 02, 2014
MILWAUKEE -- Sunday had started like any other drill day for the U.S. Airmen of the 128th Air Refueling Wing. They reported for duty, listened to briefings, and continued their mission. However, one aircrew consisting of a pilot, co-pilot, boom operator and three crew chiefs, would undertake a different mission.
For the next eight days, the 128 ARW would participate in a double total force integration aeromedical evacuation mission, bringing injured service members closer to their home-station medical facilities. A multitude of Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard aeromedical units would aid in the transportation of 18 wounded personnel in a multi-transcontinental mission.
At midday, the tanker aircrew stepped out onto the frozen concrete of the ramp as the wind and snow swirled around the airfield at General Mitchell International Airport, Milwaukee. The boom operator opened the aircraft entry doors and boarded the KC-135 Stratotanker. As the engines came to life, plumes of snow flew into the air and away from the aircraft. Once all pre-flight checklists were completed, the control tower granted clearance and the tanker went airborne.
"This is one of the most purposeful missions that we can support on many levels," said Master Sgt. Amanda Look during a pre-flight mission brief. "We are doing our part to help bring someone one step closer to home and their family."
After a 90-minute flight from Milwaukee to Joint Base Andrews, Md., the tanker touched down, taxied to its parking spot and opened the cargo bay door. A K-loader, preloaded with patient-support pallets, was marshaled toward the aircraft. The operator raised the platform into position and locked into place for the conveyance of its payload.
"Making sure communication is solid is the key to the whole mission," said Senior Airman John Leithead, a medical charge technician of the aeromedical crew. "No two patients, injuries, conditions, or needs will ever be the same. They all need individualized care and support."
The newly-formed team of 11 tanker and aeromedical personnel reconvened at the aircraft and prepped for patient arrival. The first leg of the transport mission would soon begin. While the aeromedical team, consisting of two nurses and three medical charge technicians, saw to all of the wounded service members' needs, the 128 ARW aircrew handled the aircraft.
The sun passed the horizon and peeked over the mountains as a medical transport vehicle approached the awaiting tanker. The gears of the K-loader creaked into motion. The door visibly came into view of the patients and medical staff.
Among the patients was 20-year-old Marine Lance Cpl. Matt Ehlers, hailing from Hayward, Wis.
Ehlers' knee was elevated and bandaged to cover his wound, which resulted from a 14-foot fall that sent him home early from his tour of duty in Afghanistan. The deafening hum of the aircraft's four engines wound down as the medical team prepared to move Ehlers' litter to the medical transport vehicle.
"I was walking in the early morning around 4:30, and I was going out to reinforce the post. I fell off like a drop-off and my knee had a pretty big hole in it," said Ehlers. "By the time I could see what happened to it, I could see the ACL and knee cap. There was no tear or fracture surprisingly."
During the next five hours in flight, Leithead and the aeromedical medical staff checked on every patient; their well-being, vital signs, and their individualized medical needs. This process continued until the time the patients would be released into the care at their next destination of their journey to recovery and reintegration.
Ehlers' relief and elation was apparent in his facial expression as two fellow Marines and a civilian medical staffer carried his stretcher into the medical transport vehicle. The aeromedical team's mission came to completion as the flight nurse signed the paperwork, releasing Ehlers into the care of the medical staff at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, San Diego.
They didn't have any too serious injuries on this trip, said Look. "I have seen some really bad injuries coming out of Afghanistan and Iraq and it really pulls at your heartstrings because you know that they are just doing their job, just like we are doing our job."
For Ehlers and three other patients, Miramar, would be their first and only stop with this specific crew and the members of the 128 ARW. The remaining patients would continue their aerial trek toward their own destinations, including Travis Air Force Base, Calif. or Joint Base Lewis-McCord, Wash.
After leaving JBLM, a four-and-a-half hour flight across the country arriving at JBA in the utter darkness of night marked the end of the first aeromedical evacuation mission. The 11-person team departed from the tanker, and continued on with their individualized missions. The Milwaukee crew from the 128 ARW gathered a new team of five medical professionals and ten more patients to start the second aeromedical evacuation mission.
Three days and multiple locations passed by with patients departing at each stop, bringing each wounded service member one step closer to recovery, back into service with their units, and one step closer to being reunited with their loved ones.
Upon arriving back at JBA near midnight, the second medical team, all the equipment, and PSPs were offloaded from the tanker within an hour of landing. The crew was granted a few hours rest before heading back to their home station in Milwaukee, and to prepare for the next mission.
"Our primary responsibility is air refueling, so that's what we're used to doing on a day-to-day basis, whether it's operational or training," said Look. "However, on a mission like this we hone in our other responsibilities, which are all of the cargo and passengers and our patients that are in the back of the aircraft."
Since 2003, the 128 ARW has flown 585 aeromedical evacuation missions. On those missions 1142 patients have been transported; 521 patients within the U.S. exclusively and 621 patients from overseas war zones and medical facilities.