Rain, shine or bullets, U.S. medevac is on call

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Rain, shine or bullets, U.S. medevac is on call

The call came on the morning of April 2 to American pilots and medics stationed aboard the ROK naval ship Dokdo that one of their sailors was having heart trouble. “As soon as we got word ... we were already spinning up our engines,” said medical evacuation pilot Capt. Jared Brynildsen.

“By the time they brought him topside on the Dokdo, we were ready to lift off, and that kinda surprised the Koreans.”

Charlie Company successfully medevacked the Korean sailor to an undisclosed location in Seoul for further medical care, where he made a full recovery.

Their specialized UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters are flying ambulances, capable of providing en route care to patients. It is a capability that few countries possess, and one many nations, including Korea, are attempting to emulate.

From the moment a distress call comes in, the medics and pilots of Charlie Company, 3-2 General Support Aviation Battalion need only 15 minutes to be airborne.

Providing trauma care to patients on land is one thing, but it is altogether different when flying through the air in a helicopter.

“Just try imagining sticking a patient with an IV needle in a helicopter flying in rough weather at 200 miles per hour,” said Sgt. Paul Swafford.

Charlie Company provides medevac to approximately 15 to 20 patients per month from across the Korean Peninsula.

The U.S. medevac team was dispatched to help with the Cheonan search and rescue efforts after the ROK Navy requested assistance two days after the death of a Korean Navy diver, Chief Master Sergeant Han Joo-ho, who lost consciousness and drowned while searching for survivors. Should another incident occur, the Korean military wants the capability to provide in-flight care for any patients being transported to hospitals in Seoul.

Stationed at Camp Humphreys in Pyeongtaek, Gyeonggi, Charlie Company has served on the Korean Peninsula for the past 45 years. With 12 UH-60 Blackhawks, Charlie Company primarily provides medevac support to U.S. military personnel, transporting them from across the Korean Peninsula to the United States Army’s primary health care facility, 121 General Hospital, in Seoul. If called upon, Charlie Company also stands ready to assist Koreans in times of disaster if formally requested by the Korean government, as in the case of the Cheonan sinking.

While most of Charlie Company’s pilots and medics served in Iraq or Afghanistan, Korea presents different challenges. Here, it’s not bullets or rocket propelled grenades, but ambient light that can disorient pilots when flying at night.

Flying outside urban centers also has certain challenges. When flying in blackout conditions, pilots use night vision goggles to navigate and find adequate landing zones - important if attempting to rescue a lost hiker or soldiers pinned down in a firefight.

“Once we hit the outer limits of Seoul, we flip up our NVGs,” said Chief Warrant Officer Johnny Garcia, referencing to the helmet-mounted navigation device.

Many urban environments in Korea preclude the use of NVGs because of the amount of light, but it’s not something the pilots of Charlie have not encountered before.

“Pretty much the only difference between flying over Baghdad and flying over Seoul is that here you’re not being shot at,” added Garcia.

Charlie Company helicopters, with their bright yellow lines and Red Cross designation, often use Highway 1 as a reference guide when flying to Seoul, and with such frequency that some Seoul residents have filed noise complaints with the Korean government. Many of these are training flights, but it is not uncommon for injured American soldiers, Korean assistants to the U.S. Army (commonly called KATUSA, or Korean augmentee to the U.S. Army) or their family members to be on board.

“Sometimes we have to fly low,” said Chief Warrant Officer Holly Dalton, “because the soldier may have an injury that makes flying at a high altitude a danger to the patient, such as a head injury.”

Charlie Company, 3-2 GSAB, belongs to the 2nd Combat Aviation Brigade based out of Camp Humphreys. Combat Aviation Brigades are typically equipped with AH-64 Apaches (an attack helicopter), CH-47 Chinooks (a cargo helicopter), OH-58 Kiowa (an observation helicopter) and UH-60 Blackhawks (a utility helicopter). The United States Army currently has 21 Combat Aviation Brigades, each with an aviation company dedicated to medevac missions.

According to Charlie Company commander Maj. David Zimmerman, “Charlie Company’s service in Korea has a major impact on the day to day operations of USFK soldiers and families. They know that medevac will come and get them and take them to higher care.”

By Brendan Balestrieri [estyle@joongang.co.kr]

A U.S. Army air crew takes a break on Baengnyeong Island in the Yellow Sea. By Sgt. Paul Swafford

A UH-60 Blackhawk
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