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622nd AES puts training to work during Katrina recovery

by Nick Stubbs
Thunderbolt staff writer

Maj. Judy Parow of the 622nd Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron was part of a volunteer flight crew moving Katrina victims out of New Orleans on C-130 aircraft to hospitals in Texas.

courtesy photo

There's nothing like new blood to invigorate any organization or unit, but then there is a lot to be said for the experience of a seasoned team, which after years of working together, operates almost as one when things get desperate.

Most recently the desperation came courtesy of Mother Nature in the form of Hurricane Katrina. The expert team came courtesy of the 622nd Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron.

The call came at midnight on a Saturday night and by 9 a.m. Sunday, nine volunteers from the 622nd were in the air on their way to New Orleans, where they would spend the next two weeks running command and control in support of medical evacuation efforts at the city's airport. One 622nd flight crew was already on the job shuttling patients on C-130s to Texas hospitals. No one in team MacDill, said Lt. Col. Chris McKinney, 622nd director of operations, missed a beat. He knows, because he was there with them.

"They adapted to the situation very well and very quickly," he said. "With all our overseas deployments and experience, it was easy to jump right in; everyone is very well trained."

Made up of flight nurses and medical operations officers, the team from MacDill hit the ground Sept. 4. Five days in, their work and the work of emergency agencies, other volunteers and other military units on the ground, the picture began to improve. Hundreds of hurricane victims were processed and those in need of extensive care were processed through the Aeromedical evacuation system. Flights were commanded out of Scott Air Force Base, but it was the 622nd on the ground coordinating flight equipment and personnel at New Orleans and on the receiving end of the flights. It's a job they know well, with nearly every member of the squadron having spent time deployed in either Operation Iraqi Freedom or Operation Enduring Freedom or both.

"A lot of our people have been deployed multiple times the last three or four years," said Colonel McKinney. "We have the system down and especially since 9/11 we have it together."

But there is no way to over value having a team that lives, eats, trains and deploys together, he said.

"We all live here together in Tampa and have worked so closely that you just know what everyone's capabilities are," Colonel McKinney said. "It means when I send two people forward in New Orleans I know exactly what they are capable of and I have complete confidence in them; it makes the job a lot easier."

Although the 622nd volunteers hit the ground running, all were mindful of the unique situation Katrina presented. None of the crew had ever served in a real operation in the U.S., treating and evacuating U.S. citizens.

“I’ve never seen anything like it,” said Capt. Keith Farrell, chief of aircrew training for the 622nd. “The massive number of people being flown in for medical treatment and evacuation was staggering.”

Captain Farrell speaks from experience. He’s done four tours in Operation Iraqi Freedom and one in Afghanistan. He said training allowed the members of his squadron to adapt quickly and after just a day on the ground, “everything jelled” and the team adjusted to working under Federal Emergency Management Association direction.

Captain Farrell said the 622nd team slept on cots in the airport terminal, amidst armed agents, law enforcement and military slinging weapons, making it reminiscent of a war zone. The U.S. Forestry Service was even on hand, providing meals and freshwater showers, pressing into use its field experience serving firefighters during wildfires.

"The first four or five days it was a little like a war zone and hectic," said Colonel McKinney. "But as time went by, the situation improved."

While they initially were told they might need to be on standby for a month, after two weeks, the need for medical evacuations slowed and the team was sent home to MacDill.

"It's back to training," said Colonel McKinney. "That's our primary mission here and it's that training that makes us ready for deployments and things like this (Katrina)."

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