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Medevac helicopter crews in Iraq stand ready for the next call

TAJI ARMY AIRFIELD, Iraq—Capt. Joel Neuenschwander was just powering down his Black Hawk helicopter after a routine transport flight when the call came, the one he often waits for hours each shift to hear.

"Medevac, medevac, medevac." The words are spoken sharply through the crackle of a walkie-talkie that each crewmember carries around their headquarters on this sprawling base north of Baghdad.

Neuenschwander began running to the radio room, while the three other crewmembers sprinted back out to the aircraft. It's his job to get the exact location, the seriousness of the injuries, how dangerous the area might be.

The call was marked "urgent." A U.S. soldier had been wounded by a roadside bomb about 15 miles north of Baghdad.

The pilot in charge, Capt. Scott Brown, prepared the helicopter for flight. The crew chief, Sgt. Douglas Study, quickly hooked up a headset and microphone for a reporter flying along. The medic, Staff Sgt. Thomas Harris, re-checked his equipment.

Three minutes after the request came in, the Black Hawk—call sign Eagle Dust-Off 4-1, a stuffed Tasmanian Devil wedged in its front windshield—soared forward and upward into the sky.

More than 10,000 U.S. soldiers have been wounded in the Iraq war. More than 90 percent of those who have been hurt in battle survived, according to a Harvard University study—up from 76 percent in Vietnam and 70 percent in World War II. That is due in no small measure to the men and women who make up the medical evacuation helicopter units.

They aim to fly to the scene, pick up the wounded and rush them to a combat support hospital within 30 minutes. Each Black Hawk can carry as many as six stretchers and a seventh patient in a seat.

They're among the only helicopter crews in Iraq whose job is to land in potentially hostile areas outside the fortified bases that most U.S. soldiers never leave. They're armed only with M-4 rifles and handguns.

One medevac helicopter, emblazoned with bright red hospital crosses, crashed while evading ground fire in January, killing all nine soldiers aboard. Countless others have been shot at.

Knight Ridder spent four days recently with the 50th Medical Company, which covers greater Baghdad from Taji base. The 50th is part of the 101st Airborne Division, which was involved in the Iraq invasion and later occupied the northern town of Mosul. Most members of the company are on their second Iraq tour. They expect that it won't be their last.

Neuenschwander, 29, of Bandera, Texas, has missed most of the short life of his 19-month-old daughter.

Here, in a small building near the helicopter pad, two crews of four idle away their days and nights watching DVDs, surfing the Internet and doing paperwork while they wait for a call that will send them flying low and fast over cities and countryside. They work 12-hour shifts, alternating days and nights, with one day off every 10 days.

The "first-up" crew takes the urgent missions, and the "second-up" crew takes what are called "priority" calls, which could be anything from transporting blood to picking up a soldier with food poisoning. When one crew goes to lunch, the other takes whatever call comes in.

Almost every day or night, and typically more than once, a call comes.

In a recent week, Neuenschwander's crew flew more than a dozen missions. Although they don't usually retrieve dead bodies, they helped pick up the seven National Guard soldiers killed Jan. 7 when their Bradley hit a giant bomb in the road, to spare their comrades the gruesome work, said the company commander, Maj. William G. Howard of Shinglehouse, Pa.

The next morning they took an American soldier whose appendix may have burst to the hospital. Minutes after returning from that flight, they responded to the scene of an accident in which a car full of Iraqi civilians collided with a Bradley fighting vehicle, badly injuring five Iraqis. The following night, they flew in total darkness to transport a badly burned Iraqi prisoner from a base to the hospital in Abu Ghraib prison. The medevac crew was told he had tried to blow up a tank.

"One day we fly wounded Americans, and the next day we fly the guys who try to kill them," said Harris. "And we give them all the same medical care."

Like any emergency responders, they have become inured to the carnage. But not totally.

"The hardest thing is when somebody dies, and you know there's a family somewhere who doesn't know,' said Study, a soft-spoken 23-year-old from Worland, Wyo.

It took Eagle Dust-Off 4-1 seven minutes to reach the injured American. Along the way, Neuenschwander and Brown, a 29-year-old from Warwick, R.I., made note of power lines, birds and kites. They talked to military air traffic controllers on the radio to learn what other helicopters were flying in the area.

The Black Hawk landed on the highway, where soldiers had already stopped traffic by parking their Humvees across the road. Study climbed out with his rifle to "pull security," as the army calls it, his eyes scanning the horizon.

Harris ran to where the soldier, Lt. William Rebrook of the 1st Cavalry Division, was lying next to his Bradley. The field medic had tied a tourniquet on his right arm to staunch bleeding from a severe shrapnel wound. He had been standing in a Bradley turret when the bomb exploded. He also suffered what looked like a minor head injury.

Harris helped several soldiers put 24-year-old Rebrook on a stretcher and carry him toward the Black Hawk, whose rotors never stopped whirring. As they neared the door, someone lost their footing and dumped Rebrook on the hard pavement. That happens a lot, Harris said later, because soldiers move too fast trying to get their buddies to the aircraft.

Rebrook, of Charleston, W.Va., was strapped into the litter, and the helicopter took off after just three minutes on the ground. He was conscious but pale and shivering, showing signs of shock.

Harris put an oxygen mask over his face and a blanket over his body. Rebrook's desert camouflage top was soaked with blood.

It took eight minutes to fly back to Baghdad, over trash dumps and palaces, to the site of the 86th Combat Support Hospital. Upon landing, hospital medics drove a small-wheeled vehicle to pick up Rebrook and take him into the trauma center. Harris hopped on.

Inside the hospital, medics and nurses lifted their patient into a gurney.

"God, that hurts so bad," he moaned.

"Let's get him some morphine," said an army doctor, Lt. Col. William Smith.

"I already had one," Rebrook said.

"Well, we're gonna get you some more."

A nurse took the hand of his injured arm: Can you squeeze my hand? "No," he said.

Within minutes, he would go in for a cat scan and then up to surgery, doctors said.

News reports would later quote his father saying that doctors put pins in his multiple fractures and put him on a plane to a hospital in Germany.

But Harris couldn't linger. The helicopter was waiting on the pad. It had to hurry back and be ready for the next call.

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(Dilanian reports for the Philadelphia Inquirer)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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