MacDill's 622nd AES deploys to Washington D.C.
by Tech. Sgt. Charlie Miller
Andrews Air Force Base, Maryland - There's never a typical day for the MacDill Air Force Base, Florida 622nd Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron members deployed here. One day might bring several arriving planes with 100 wounded from Ramstein Air Base, Germany. Another day could bring the launching of planes with critical care patients bound for stateside hospitals over a thousand miles away. No day is typical or remotely close to routine.
But the focus for the reservists, currently attached to the 375th AES, is not settling into a routine work day while deployed 1500 miles from home. The focus is clearly on the patients.
"The most important people in any day for all of us here are the patients," said Capt. Mark Carey, who serves as Operations Officer here. Back at the 622nd, the captain coordinates the Aeromedical Evacuation Operations Officers Training Program at home station.
Every day the captain and the team of reservists from the 622nd and the 445th Airlift Wing, Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, Ohio do an elaborate juggling act figuring out what individual patients needs are, what special care they might need, where they are coming from, where they are going to and how they will be transported to these destinations.
They have help from the Global Patient Movement Regulatory Center at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois. "It's the central clearing house for patients," said Maj. James Crowe, Officer-in-Charge, Mission Management and reservists from the 445th said. "They get all the patients into the system and that allows us trace, track and move them."
"Flexibility is the name of the game," Capt. Carey said. "You make your best made plans and there can always be the clause 'subject to change.'"
Some of the critically wounded and seriously ill travel with a specialized medical team attending them. A doctor, a nurse and a respitiory therapist make a Critical Care Air Transportation Team.
Some patients are dependent children accompanied by a parent, some dependent spouses. A number are on litters, some walking. The 622nd team, along with the active duty and AES members from several Air Force Reserve wings, take care of them all.
That's just the first act. They repeat most of it with the military personnel. After the patients they take care of the air crews and the ground crews. And by taking care of the crews that means billeting, transportation, and perhaps most importantly, scheduling. The crews get some much deserved rest then are quickly back in the air caring for the wounded and ill stateside and overseas.
The public and military members who don't get to see what's happening on the flight line may not know how well the Air Force is taking care of the wounded Maj. Crowe said.
"There might be a C-17 coming here from Ramstein Air Base, Germany or even flying directly to San Antonio with just one critically wounded soldier aboard," the major said. "No expense is being spared." The mission to saves lives is crystal clear.
"I've yet to meet one angry or mad wounded soldier, even if they are missing limbs," Capt. Carey said. "I help them off the plane and they say 'thank you' to me. I'm the one who should be saying thank you."
One recent morning they are uploading and transporting patients on a KC-135 and a C-130. The KC-135 is an Andrews's based Air Force Reserve plane and the C-130 is a West Virginia Air National Guard plane. One plane will head west, the other south.
The work is fast, but not furious. The AES members work carefully and methodically, almost single-mindedly to prepare the planes for the wounded. They seem oblivious to the Belgian Defense plane and the Republic of Italy jet parked next to them.
The first to launch on this day is the KC-135, a plane normally used for airborne refueling but set up with the proper equipment to transport a limited number of wounded and patients. It was not designed to be an airborne ambulance, passenger plane or cargo hauler but can be used for those missions if needed.
For this plane a massive 25 foot high, 40 foot long metal ramp officially called the Patient Loading System is needed for getting the patients aboard. It takes about 10 people to gingerly roll the ramp up to side of the plane at its large cargo door, just behind the flight deck. Boom operators carefully attach it to the edge of their plane.
Each of the ramps dozen or more wheels are locked in place and transfer plates at the top and bottom of the ramp are put in place to insure a safe, smooth path for those walking and those carrying litters.
Three ambuses slowly approach the plane, red emergency lights flashing vigorously. From two of the ambuses come those who can board the plane unassisted. Most are young, under 25 years old. Many are carrying backpacks and personal effects; some have medicines and medical records in hand. A young girl about five years old walks with her mother to the ramp. The girl looks up the ramp and at the large plane then to her mother who assures her everything is alright. They slowly climb the ramp, hand-in-hand, with the mother tucking a huge teddy bear under one arm.
After all the walking patients are situated, 445th AES flight nurse Maj. Bobbie Stemen sets the order in which she wants the patients on litters to be carried aboard.
Another ambus backs up beside the ramp. The back doors swing open and three U.S. Navy petty officers along with 15 Air Force members surround the opening in the back of the ambus. They loaded the patients at the hospital and have accompanied them to Andrews to assist them onto the planes patients.
The floor of the ambus stands about three and one half feet above the tarmac. Lifting a 215 pound man on a litter out at that height is not easy. One of the petty officers with arms the thickness of an NFL lineman stretches and jokes with the others.
Airmen on the ambus carry patients to the back and give the litter handles to those standing on the tarmac. Once completely clear of the ambus, an on-site flight surgeon supervises, giving commands on movements and directions. He also helps carry the litters up the ramp.
As the captain and his team begins its assent up the fairly steep ramp two others follow close behind ready to assist if needed.
The wounded on litters are uploaded in less than an hour. The KC-135 is ready for departure. The huge ramp is detached and rolled away by Capt. Carey and a mix of medical people and ground crew. Within moments of parking it off the edge of the runway they shift their attention to the C-130.
An ambus backs to within 30 feet of the rear C-130 cargo door. The planes ramp is down and the plane is set for the patients.
Again, the walking patients load first and are situated before those on litters are carried aboard. There is no giant ramp to deal with as the C-130 is a smaller plane and all the patients are uploaded and situated within 20 minutes. Patient baggage is loaded last and strapped down to the floor at the tail of the plane by the loadmasters. Capt. Carey and all the medical and ground crews clear the area as the plane prepares for departure.
One part of the patient distribution that Capt. Carey and the other reservists are responsible for is moving patients from hospitals here and sending them, when they have recovered enough, to medical facilities closer to their homes.
"One day we had four missions in just two hours," the captain said. "If it's a big day we'll sit down and plot a strategy spending time finding airplanes and figuring out how to get all the patients home."
Seeing some of the severely wounded is not easy but its part of the job. "It's hard, especially when I realize that I'm old enough to be their dad," Capt. Carey said. "But on the civilian side I've work as a respiratory therapist and manage a facility for long term ventilator patients."
"I'll tell you what - these kids are in good spirits," the captain said.
"The good thing about it is there is a smattering of everything here," Capt. Carey said.