DUSTOFF in Iraq Faces Biggest Challenge Since Vietnam

Editor’s Note: The Arabic Web site, Al-Jazeerah, reported a Jordan Times article on U.S. Army Aeromedical evacuation operations in Iraq this past July.


Baghdad—The largest ongoing U.S. medevac operation since the Vietnam War is in full swing in Iraq, as a company of Black Hawk helicopter pilots, crew chiefs, and medics race across Iraqi skies—and against time—to bring aid to friend and foe. Fighting wind-whipped perma-dust, rising attacks on U.S. forces and exhaustion, the 159th Medical Company (Air Ambulance) struggles to transport the growing number of wounded on both sides of a simmering conflict three months after a lightning U.S.-led invasion ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.

The need for the emergency medical evacuation (medevac) services shows no sign of let-up as U.S. forces come under mounting attacks by suspected Saddam loyalists—many of whom are flown to U.S. field hospitals after sustaining injuries in gun battles with U.S. troops.

“We’re by far the busiest I’ve ever experienced,” says Captain James Hannam, the exhausted 30-year-old operations officer who runs the 159th, which averages more than thirteen missions per day and has logged 2,200 flight hours in four months.


On July 4, U.S. Independence Day, the team flew a record nineteen missions.

“Some days we barely make it. This is the busiest U.S. medevac since Vietnam.”

And perhaps the most dangerous.


While the olive-drab UH-60A Black Hawks are clearly marked with the Red Cross believed to be universally recognized, the pilots say many Iraqis appear unfamiliar with the markings.


At night the tracers float up, sometimes uncomfortably close to the Black Hawks, says Crew Chief, Specialist Jeffrey Willis, 31.

In compliance with the Geneva Convention, the air ships cannot be armed; only the personal firearms of crew members are allowed.


None of the fourteen medevac Black Hawks stationed at Baghdad International Airport, southwest of the city, has been hit by ground fire since the war, Willis points out, but the discomfort he shares with his flight unit is growing, along with the number of missions they are flying.


“It’s getting worse and worse,” says Willis.


Not only the helicopter teams are at risk. A U.S. Army medic was killed last month when assailants fired a rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) on a military ambulance near Baghdad.


One of the company’s seventeen pilots, Warrant Officer William O’Donnell, cites increased RPG attacks and other ambushes on occupying ground forces struggling to keep peace in Iraq.


“We’ve been busier this past month than before,” O’Donnell says.

When an urgent call comes in, a medevac team is seen scrambling out of their cramped office and running through the “Nineline,” the medevac checklist standard to all U.S. military units.


In most urgent situations, they can be “wheels up” in five minutes, O’Donnell says.


“Sometimes we go for a fifteen-minute job and end up staying out ten hours answering calls on the fly,” says Willis.


A recent flight to transfer injured soldiers to a high-tech field hospital in the desert 25 kilometers southwest of the airport highlighted the precarious nature of the work.


Touching down at the 28th Combat Support Hospital in the desert, Willis is given another mission: Transport four treated Iraqi enemy prisoners of war (EPWs) back to Camp Cropper prison at the airport.


“We get EPWs on here all the time, and we never know how they’ll react when they’re aboard,” Willis says, as he orders a reporter and photographer off the chopper to make room for the handcuffed prisoners.


About 50 percent of those medevaced are Iraqi prisoners or civilians. The flights often turn into humanitarian efforts, with teams flying injured or sick Iraqi children to U.S. hospitals for medical care.


The 159th boasts a 99 percent survival rate—just four of their 2,200 patients have died after transfer to the hospital.


But the weight of the work bears down on them daily, with calls from U.S. units under fire.


A somber-looking Chief Warrant Officer Jorge Correa stepped out of his Black Hawk early Tuesday to speak of his latest mission to evacuate a U.S. Marine who had lost half his foot to a mine south of Baghdad.


Still the crews say their chaotic stint in Baghdad has been the highlight of their careers.


“It’s everyone’s dream, to do such a job so soon out of flight school,” said Chief Warrant Office Travis Workman, who has already logged 260 flight hours in four months in Iraq. “I love this job!”