DUSTOFF in Kosovo
by MAJ John Fristoe
Commander, 236th Medical Co. (AA)
The quality of personnel we have in the 236th Medical Company and the AMEDD in general astounds me. I recall members of this unit, such as SFC Marvin Broadwater, who recently won DUSTOFF Crewmember of the Year, SFC Gosling and SSG Dicker, who were both Commandant's List, graduates of their respective courses, and SSG Diaz, who was Distinguished Honor Graduate at BNCOC. SGT Alldaffer recently won NCO of the Month honors for the aviation task force here in Kosovo. That speaks highly of his ability and his stature, as generally the Medevac community is overwhelmed by the sheer volume of aviation folks. Where do these great soldiers come from and what compels them to do the great things they do? I have wondered about this, as we have recently seen other heroes from the 236th. SGT David Estrada recently distinguished himself as a true hero here in Kosovo for his actions in attempting to rescue a 5-year-old boy.
We had our first hoist mission here in Kosovo on Sunday, January 9, 2000. We got called at 1522 for a child who had been submerged under ice for approximately thirty minutes. We had an excellent response time, off in eight minutes, enroute time of seven minutes. The LZ was east of checkpoint Gulf, on the Serbian Border inside the five-kilometer buffer zone.
Once we got on-site, we were informed that the child had not yet been found. Locals were standing along the banks with sticks trying to break up the ice. A U.S. Engineer Company had a couple of soldiers there, some of whom had gone in the water to search for the boy. Apparently, the father had crossed the frozen river; the older brother followed, and then the 5-year-old boy attempted to cross. (This occurred only about twenty meters upstream from a bridge.) The father and brother apparently heard a splash, turned around and saw only a hole in the ice. No one could get to the actual hole, although we doubted if the child was anywhere near it at this point. The engineer soldiers there did a great job of keeping people back so our guys could get in there and assess. The crew was CW2 Christopher Frey, myself, SGT David Estrada, the medic, and SGT Glenn Fryer, the CE. We decided to hoist Estrada down to try and break up the ice and see if he could see anything through the ice. We hovered up and down stream searching, with no success.
After several minutes, SGT Estrada saw what he thought was a coat and signaled to be lowered in an attempt to reach it. He went completely under, completely submerged in the frozen river. It was quite apparent that he was freezing, but unfortunately what he saw was only a bag. We contacted DUSTOFF Operations to launch the second-up aircraft: our medic was freezing, and if anyone did find this child, SGT Estrada would probably not have been capable of assisting in reviving him. The second-up aircraft could not launch because of weather below minimums at Camp Bondsteel. DUSTOFF Operations contacted Camp Able Sentry in Macedonia and attempted to launch an aircraft from there, but they did not have weather either. After about forty minutes of station time, we got information from the engineers that a dive team at Camp Monteith was awaiting pickup for transport to the site. We departed with SGT Estrada warming in the back of the aircraft.
By the time we departed Monteith with the dive team on board, we were under goggles. We got back to the site and shut down. I was senior guy on-site, but the Engineer Company Commander had the site secure. He had pulled vehicles up to the water for lighting and had comms established with his Battalion TOC, giving us a phone link to our operations. The Engineer Company did an absolutely fantastic job. We orchestrated search patterns across the river. The divers went under the ice, and back and forth across the water. The visibility was poor: polluted water, dark. We searched downstream to the bridge where there was no ice, just running water. We continued the search downstream to a stagnant area where the river made a ninety-degree turn to the left. We had sent folks downstream during the day and had hovered over the water for about two kilometers downstream and had seen nothing. This had taken us to within approximately two kilometers of the Serbian border. There was lots of garbage in the water, but we could not find the child.
At about 1900, I concluded that, even though the water was freezing, it would now become a search mission and not a rescue mission. I knew there was virtually no chance of rescuing this child if we could find him. We were also concerned about the weather; if our sister ships couldn't get out of Bondsteel, we were concerned about getting in. We could see Camp Bondsteel through goggles, so tower cleared us in and we landed at 1947.
Of course, any crew acts as a team, and SGT Estrada certainly could not have done what he did without the other members of that crew. CW2 Chris Frey was the Pilot-in-Command and in his usual meticulous manner performed every action by the book, professionally. His concern for his crew and his passion for the job were revealed to me that day. The first time on scene, CW2 Frey left the aircraft to assist SGT Estrada on the riverbank. On arrival, he found SGT Estrada removing his flight vest and preparing to jump into the river to attempt to locate the boy. CW2 Frey refused to allow SGT Estrada to do so, instead telling him that a safer approach would be to utilize the hoist, where we would have control of him from the air. His confidence in his crew and his execution of this mission speak volumes about the true professional he is.
Those of us in MEDEVAC who fly these aircraft and perform these missions know how much is involved in hoist operations, and that day was no different. SGT Frey's responsiveness in establishing an environment safe for hoist operations was impressive. He expertly guided SGT Estrada the fifty or so feet off the river and through the trees. When SGT Estrada signaled to be lowered into the water, there was no hesitation by SGT Frey. He simply pressed the button and informed the pilots, knowing that his teammate was counting on him to keep him safe. It is impossible to articulate how cold it must have been under the aircraft in that water. SGT Estrada's flight suit was almost like cardboard because it was frozen and rigid. He had ice in his hair, his lips were blue, and yet he persevered. SGT Frey never wavered, just went about his business like it was a training flight, talking to the pilot: "move right," "move forward," "SGT Estrada is in the water," clearing the aircraft: textbook all the way, calm as can be. CW2 Frey and I did not even notice as we departed Camp Bondsteel on this mission that SGT Frey had grabbed the night vision goggles from flight operations. They would play an important role in our mission later that night.
I had the good fortune to be on duty that day with this crew, something commanders don't always get to do. I saw these professionals in action. Even as we hovered there with the rotor disc four to five feet over the tops of the trees that guarded each side of the riverbank, with the ice beneath us and SGT Estrada hanging precariously under the aircraft, I could not help but think about the incredible people I have working for me. I remember thinking, "Yes, this is want I want to be doing." It was almost like time had frozen like the river below.
After some time, we had to pull our freezing teammate back into the aircraft. SGT Frey hoisted SGT Estrada back into the aircraft and we were able to warm him, preventing another casualty by not allowing him to become hypothermic. SGT Frey's actions in rewarming SGT Estrada further indicated his heroism for foresight in knowing exactly what to do with a casualty at high risk of becoming hypothermic. The training these guys receive became instinctive, and that is what training and leadership are all about.
These missions don't always work out, as this one didn't. Although we searched that river aggressively, we were unable to locate the submerged child; his body was found four days later. If you do this business long enough, you realize it and accept it. The glory usually goes to the folks who are involved in the ones that work out. But the guys in this story are all heroes in my book; they are truly those who make DUSTOFF legendary. Even more so than I considered before, I assure you that the DUSTOFF legacy is alive and well in KOSOVO.