Wounded Warriors Get Heroes' Welcome at Andrews
(October 7, 2009)
|ANDREWS AIR FORCE BASE, Md., Oct. 2, 2009 – Minutes after
the hulking C-17 transport jet rolled to a stop on the
tarmac, two oversized ambulances backed up to its rear
loading ramp to receive its precious cargo: 23 wounded
warriors and sick or injured servicemembers in need of
advanced medical care. |
|The 779th Aeromedical Staging Facility at Andrews Air Force Base, Md., transports a severely wounded soldier being medically evacuated from Iraq for advanced treatment care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington.
Most of the patients aboard the Sept. 28 mission arrived
from Iraq and Afghanistan after being stabilized at
Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. |
Several had serious combat injuries. A soldier who had been
in a helicopter crash in Iraq was headed to the National
Naval Medical Center in nearby Bethesda for specialized care
for his head and other injuries. Another, suffering serious
musculoskeletal injuries from a mine-resistant,
ambush-protected vehicle accident outside his forward
operating base in Afghanistan, was en route to Walter Reed
Army Medical Center in Washington for treatment.
Another patient, severely wounded in a rocket-propelled
grenade attack in Afghanistan, remained on the aircraft to
be flown directly to the burn unit at Brooke Army Medical
Center in San Antonio.
The patients who didn't require critical care walked off the
plane and onto a bus that stood ready to whisk them off for
an overnight stay at the 779th Medical Group's Aeromedical
Staging Facility. After getting a hot meal and a good
night's sleep under the watchful eyes of the facility's
medical staff, they would be flown to other treatment
facilities throughout the United States.
The little-known 779th Aeromedical Staging Facility, tucked
within the base's Malcolm Grow Medical Center, serves as the
gateway for patients returning to the United States for
specialized care, explained Air Force Capt. Nicole Stoneburg,
the facility's acting commander.
Three flights arrive here each week bearing sick or wounded
soldiers, sailors, airmen and Marines, as well as Defense
Department civilians, contract employees and military family
members. So far this year, 5,230 patients have transited
through the facility, Stoneburg reported.
Patients with the most serious conditions immediately move
on to next-level treatment facilities. But about
three-quarters of the arriving patients remain overnight to
rest before continuing to their ultimate destinations.
Ensuring inbound patients get the care they need and
treatment they deserve begins long before the flights --
most flown by the Mississippi Air National Guard -- arrive
from Ramstein Air Base in Germany.
Critical-care air transport teams made up of a doctor, a
critical-care nurse and a respiratory therapist are
forward-deployed to Germany to accompany every inbound
flight, explained Air Force Maj. Ron Jones, deputy commander
of the 779th Medical Operations Squadron's Critical Care
Flight. The team monitors patients' conditions and delivers
care as needed during the eight-hour flight.
Meanwhile, the 779th ASF's medical administration team at
Andrews tracks every inbound patient's medical status and
knows exactly what care they need and what treatment
facility they're headed to. Airman 1st Class Chelsey Morgan
and her team call themselves the “brains of the operation,”
keeping their eyes glued to a computer-based global patient
tracking system to ensure no detail falls through the
Thirty minutes before the Sept. 28 flight's arrival, the
facility staff bustled with final preparations. Ambulance
crews readied to meet the aircraft. A forklift prepared to
offload patients' bags. Litters and wheelchairs were moved
“What we do is very much a team concept,” Stoneburg said.
"We work very closely together to coordinate all the details
of our missions, both the inbound and outbound flights."
Driving their efforts is a recognition that every minute
counts when getting patients, particularly those with the
most serious conditions, to care.
Combat troops typically arrive here within 72 hours of
suffering a severe battlefield injury -- a vast improvement
over past conflicts, Stoneburg explained. During Operation
Desert Storm in 1991, it took 10 days. The average was 21
days during the Vietnam War.
Today, patients categorized as “urgent” are moved even
faster. “These are patients that, if you delay, you lose a
life. If you delay, you lose a limb. If you delay, they lose
their eyesight,” explained Air Force Col. Steve Cramer, the
779th Aerospace Medicine Squadron commander. “So the faster
we're able to move, the better their outcomes will be.”
That concept drives the staff as they offload critical-care
patients with choreographic precision and transfer them onto
ambulances against the backdrop of roaring C-17 engines.
“This is America at its best,” said Air Force Col. (Dr.)
Richard Niemtzow, a 779th Medical Operations Squadron
physician who boarded the aircraft as soon as it landed to
greet the patients. “You see sergeants carrying colonels and
colonels carrying sergeants. You see African-Americans
carrying Caucasians. You see Mexican-Americans carrying
Chinese-Americans. Everyone is one team, all working
together for each other.”
Niemtzow or another colonel, as well as a chaplain, are part
of an official party that welcomes every arriving patient to
U.S. soil. “We tell them we're proud of them and appreciate
what they have done,” he said. “But we also assure them that
they are going to continue to get the best-quality care
The official greeting sets the stage for a no-holds-barred
effort to make patients as comfortable and relaxed as
possible as they're transferred to their follow-on treatment
Army and Marine Corps liaisons greet patients from their
services to resolve service-specific questions and issues.
“We're representing the entire Army in welcoming them back,”
said Army Col. James Conaway, who leads a three-person Army
medical evacuation team that greets every arriving flight.
The team offers the comfort of familiar-looking uniforms to
the arrivals, 80 to 85 percent of them typically from the
“We're here to make sure every Army soldier gets a proper
greeting, gets proper care and gets an opportunity to bounce
information off of us as we prepare to hand them off to the
warrior transition units,” Conaway said.
He presents all arriving patients, regardless of their
service, pre-paid phone cards, funded through the Army
Emergency Relief Fund. Battle-wounded soldiers get a $200
gift card to cover incidental expenses.
Non-critical-care patients who remain overnight at Andrews
get the red-carpet treatment as they arrive at the 779th
Aeromedical Staging Facility.
“When our wounded warriors come through the doors, they are
greeted with the hero's welcome they deserve,” said Air
Force Col. Robert Miller, the 779th Medical Group commander.
“We feel this facility is like a five-star hotel for them to
rest and recuperate before they continue on with their
The ASF staff, augmented by a cadre of Red Cross volunteers,
lives up to Miller's pledge from the minute they walk or
roll patients in their wheelchairs or gurneys to their rooms
and help them settle in. Each room holds two to four
patients, and each bed has its own medical equipment,
television and phone.
Air Force Lt. Col. (Dr.) Constance Jackson, the facility's
medical director, and her team tend to the patients' medical
needs and offer them assurance that they're in good hands.
“I want them to know we appreciate where they have been, and
go the extra mile to take care of whatever it is they need,”
After settling into their rooms and getting their immediate
medical needs tended to, most patients who physically are
able prefer to move into the facility's common areas to
relax. There, they can stretch out in oversized leather
chairs enjoying a large-screen TV, or they can telephone
home, check e-mail or access computer game stations.
Red Cross volunteers circulate with kind words and a cart of
soft drinks and snacks. They check to ensure the patients
have everything they need, and offer up toiletries,
clothing, shoes and other items donated by local churches
and other groups to ensure nobody goes without.
“We're here to help provide them the things that can bring
them some comfort,” said Ed “Smokey” Smolarsky, a retired
Air Force senior master sergeant who runs the supply closet.
“By being here, we feel that it's a way to give back. And
these guys are definitely thankful for what we're able to do
Shortly after the patients arrived, the staff serves up a
hot meal of foods most troops say they've missed during
their deployments: pizza, fried chicken and filet mignon,
Air Force Airman 1st Class Angela Thoma, who spent hours
helping prepare the meal, said comfort food goes a long way
in helping the patients feel at home. “Their eyes light up
as soon as they see the food,” she said. “But there's
another benefit. It fills them up and helps them relax. And
that helps them sleep longer through the night.”
As he stretched out in front of the wide-screen TV, Army
Staff Sgt. Rosario Hernandez was having no trouble putting
himself at ease. He was transiting through the facility
before flying out the next day to his home station at Fort
Bliss, Texas, for surgery to repair compressed nerves in his
ankle and leg.
Three combat deployments, including the past five months in
Iraq, had taken their toll on the 33-year-old's body.
Hernandez had regrets about leaving his soldiers, but said
he recognizes he's in no shape to lead them until his body
Hernandez said he was impressed not just by the medical
care, but also by the compassion he felt as he was evacuated
out of Iraq, through Germany and back to the United States.
“At every step of the way, they treated everybody with
complete kindness,” he said. “It was culture shock to see
how they treated everybody.”
Based on his experience, Hernandez said, he's got nothing
but reassurance for his fellow servicemembers in the event
they're ever medically evacuated out of the combat theater.
“They'll be in good hands,” he said. “I never imagined it
was going to be this good.”
Article and photo be Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
Forces Press Service / DoD
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