Army's Last Medical Evacuation Battalion Transforms After Final Evac Mission Complete

Story by Pfc. Crystal D. Eldridge
13th COSCOM Public Affairs Office

Picture this … a thousand Soldiers are spread out over an area the size of Texas. Throughout this area, there are dangers-both environmental and human-forces threatening those thousand Soldiers 24 hours a day, seven days a week, 365 days a year.

Other human beings become deadly obstacles that must be faced and overcome. Sandstorms and immeasurable gusts of wind threaten personal safety and equipment. Every second seems hours as the weight of responsibility presses in …

A thousand Soldiers … a thousand opportunities for greatness - or disaster.

This is the situation the Soldiers of the 36th Medical Evacuation Battalion found themselves in as they deployed to Iraq in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. Nearly 1,000 Soldiers - medics, aviators, drivers, experts in an array of fields - faced the task of saving lives … while risking their own.

The 36th had 60 UH-60 Blackhawk aircraft flying single-ship missions. There was no room for error - no wing-man to watch their backs. If a Blackhawk went down, there was no sister ship to take its place. The life of the patient they were trying to save would be forfeited.

This was a possibility the Soldiers of the battalion were unwilling to accept. They refused to fail or go down. There were too many lives to be saved.

On the ground, 72 ambulances faced similar conditions. Improvised explosive devices lay as a threat across the Iraqi countryside. Insurgents presented risks as the Soldiers of the battalion rushed to the aid of their fallen comrades. Potential danger lurked around every corner.

But the ground forces of the 36th would not be stopped. They pressed on to complete their mission - the mission of keeping the nation's fighting men and women alive and well.

Over the course of the battalion's year-long deployment, nearly 39,000 patients - of U.S., Iraqi and coalition forces - required the attention of the men and women of the 36th. Nearly 39,000 lives were saved.

Over the course of the year, nearly 22,000 evacuation missions were successfully carried out. That required 15,000 flight hours and 270,000 miles driven over land.

Over the course of the year, with so many missions and 35 forward operating bases remaining active and alert, not one Class A accident occurred - there were no accidents with a total cost of reportable damage of one million dollars, aircraft destroyed, or resulting in a fatality or permanent total disability.

Over the course of the year, only five aircraft were battle-damaged. Five out of 60.

The statistics for the 36th are impeccable but numbers sometimes discount the human element. And the 36th is comprised of humans.

Lt. Col. Robert D. Mitchell had the strenuous task of commanding these Soldiers of the 36th. By his side was Command Sgt. Maj. Brian A. Fahl. Together, the two had nearly 500 flight hours "trooping the lines" and checking on their Soldiers. Their Soldiers, they said, had enough experience and were the best led, best trained and best prepared Soldiers to go to Iraq and conduct their missions anytime, anywhere.

"They love it and they did a great job over there," the colonel said of the Soldiers under his command. "I had great commanders and Soldiers executing to standard."

The colonel went on to say the crews' training and bravery is what caused their success - even under adverse conditions 24 hours a day.

Adverse conditions … high risk missions using night vision goggles over oceans of sand, two factors which cause depth perception to be almost inexistent.

Adverse conditions … high risk missions where insurgents hide on rooftops or create roadblocks in order to ambush Soldiers - and anyone helping them.

The 36th had only 1,000 Soldiers running 22,000 evacuation missions in only a year - 365 days. The Soldiers rarely complained - they lived to save lives. That is what they do.

Yet the strain of responsibility - the desire to help as many as possible and leave no man behind requires almost superhuman strength to endure. It is a strength their commander acknowledged and admired.

Finishing each other's sentences, the commander and command sergeant major began to describe what their Soldiers saw on a daily basis.

Hospitals do not just appear on the battlefield. Everything is not automatically sterile and stitched. When the Soldiers of the 36th arrive on the scene, wounds are open and every second counts.

Bullets continue flying as the team reaches the patient. Insurgents do not call cease fire because a medic is in the vicinity. The roar of rocket propelled grenades is just as loud to the team as it is to an infantryman or little child playing in the street.

The dry, thick layer of dust fills a medic's nostrils just as quickly as it does the scout's or the Marine's. The smell of war just as bitter and sweet.

The Soldiers of the 36th were reminded of this truth in a cruel and heart-wrenching way. While en route to aid Marines who had been injured in an IED attack, one of their own, Staff Sgt. Trisha Jamieson of the 313th Ground Ambulance Company, Nebraska Army National Guard, was snatched away by a secondary IED explosion.

Yet out of such insurmountable conditions, these Soldiers created success stories - nearly 39,000 of them.

Even after the grief and pain of losing one of their own to a secondary improvised explosive device, these Soldiers saved life after life. They lived the Warrior's Ethos and put the mission first. They put others first.

"We're the angels on the battlefield," said Pfc. Derek Van Tuyl, a young Soldier who just returned from Iraq after serving there with the 36th. "Can't have a better feeling than saving Soldiers, seeing them back with their families - no matter how they look."

Van Tuyl explained that wounds are not beautiful, but the Soldier bearing those wounds is. That Soldier is worth saving. And saving those Soldiers gives Van Tuyl and his colleagues a great feeling.

"Proud … I couldn't put it any other way."

Another 36th Soldier who has additional right to be proud is Sgt. Jessica Reed, a 22 year old National Guardsman from Nebraska who, as the battalion's command sergeant major proudly declared, was honored as the Army Times' Soldier of the Year.

The Soldiers of the 36th also created another success story - a story quite different in nature. The 36th was the Army's last medical evacuation battalion. In the midst of all that war required, these Soldiers pulled off a transformation that will change the face of the Army forever.

The battalion transformed into a multifunctional medical battalion, shifting evacuation responsibilities to aviation brigades. The transformation called for aviation brigades to take on evacuation companies which will provide medical evacuations in a very specific area of conflict rather than one battalion being responsible for the evacuations of the entire theater. Each company will have 12 to 15 aircraft to conduct its missions.

It is a concept that is relatively new to the Army, but the commander and command sergeant major of the 36th think it will be a successful one.

"It's been a challenge for the commanders and Soldiers, but it can be done," the colonel added.

A challenge indeed, and bittersweet. With the Army's transformation and the battalion's redeployment, the final mission for a medical evacuation battalion in combat has been completed.

"We're flexible," the commander said, referring to the changes in his battalion's responsibilities - moving on to preventive medicine and the like. "I think we were successful in our endeavor."

And so, as their endeavor ends, a thousand Soldiers return home having made history. A thousand Soldiers can rest easy at night knowing they've made a difference. A thousand Soldiers - a thousand angels. Picture that.

 

news photo
Medics load a wounded Iraqi onto a UH-60 Blackhawk MEDEVAC helicopter near Samarra, Iraq. The Blackhawk was on of 60 assigned to the 36th Medical Battalion during its recent deployment. Photo by SPC Brandi Marshall