SOMEWHERE IN THE GULF -- Tucked away at this forward-located base is a tiny but tight knit medical team few troops ever notice. But should any one of them fall critically ill or injured, these airmen quickly will become their best friends. They will closely tend to their patient's urgent medical needs while flying thousands of miles to a U.S. military hospital in Germany or another interim hospital to receive full-time care.
The medics are assigned to the 320th Expeditionary Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron/Forward, a specialized team whose primary work center is the cabin or cargo hold of an airplane flying several miles high. All are deployed from the 375th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron at Scott Air Force Base, Ill.
A five-person aeromedical evacuation team usually consists of a medical crew director, a flight nurse, a charge medical technician and two aeromedical evacuation technicians. The team supports the assigned physician and flight nurse who complete the critical care air transport team.
"My responsibilities as a flight nurse or medical crew director are to watch over the patient, take care of the paperwork, make sure I get all the patient's (details written on his chart) and pass along all the patient info to the next person who is taking care of the patient -- kind of a final authority for the whole thing," said Capt. Paul Simpson.
The AE techs begin each mission by considering the type of aircraft they will use because different airframes require specific types of medical equipment and litter configurations. While their primary aircraft is the C-9 Nightingale, which is known for the prominent red cross on its vertical stabilizer, these medics are trained to accomplish their mission aboard C-17 Globemaster III and C-141 Starlifter aircraft, or on commercial airliners from the Civilian Reserve Air Fleet.
Before heading out to the aircraft, they must "preflight" their medical equipment with operations and calibration checks. The inventory often includes everything from high-tech monitors, oxygen tanks and regulators to defibrillators -- those high-voltage paddles doctors use in emergencies to restore or regulate a patient's heart rhythm.
"When we get out to the aircraft, we look at how it needs to be set up with oxygen and other things," said Staff Sgt. Chassidy Dority. "Then we decide where we'll be placing our patient and our equipment. Once that's all coordinated with the aircraft commander and loadmaster ... we start to configure the aircraft. Usually by that time, the patient is (ready to be carried aboard), then we just make sure we're constantly communicating with the (medical crew director) and flight nurse, letting them know what's going on..."
Moments later, technicians bring their patient on board, check vital signs and secure the patient for takeoff. Once airborne, the patient's vital signs are re-checked and patient care continues throughout the flight.
"We can be ready to go in an hour," Dority said.
The deployed medics received their first real-world mission test very early in their deployment.
"We got our first mission when we were here less than 18 hours," Simpson said. The mission was to move a soldier who suffered a severe reaction to his smallpox vaccination.
"This guy was really pretty sick," Simpson said of the patient, who was diagnosed with a form of encephalitis, which can cause fatal brain swelling. During the aerovac flight to Germany, the five AE medics worked closely with the CCATT to keep their patient stabilized and as comfortable as possible. Within days, the patient recovered fully from his illness.
"We all worked together as a great team," Simpson said.
Despite the prospects for war looming on the horizon, and with it the potential for many casualties, these deployed medics say they are confident that their training and experiences have prepared them well.
"I feel very confident," said Capt. Jeffrey Combalecer, second flight nurse. "As far as being prepared for tactical missions, we've been doing that at Scott for years.
"We've been working on this for three years," he said, "doing nothing but training, going to classes every year for it. To me, this is a reason we're (prepared for) this mission."
Staff Sgt. Jason Robbins, an AE technician, used a sports analogy to describe the unit's potentially quick shift to a wartime operational mode.
"It's like we're preparing for the big game, constantly training," he said. "When you deploy, the coach pulls you off the bench, and you feel like you're actually making a difference.
"This is probably the most operational experience that anyone will ever get, and here we are, so close to the Iraqi border," Robbins said. "It's just a matter of time before you have to ... switch from the training environment you've grown accustomed to over to an environment where individuals are counting on you to provide the good level of treatment that will be necessary to sustain their life and get them to more definitive care."
Robbins and Palmer were quick to share their favorite aspects of their job lifestyle.
"The camaraderie," Robbins said. "In hospitals, you come in, do your shift, then go home. But in aerovac, you spend so much time together you build up the camaraderie, and it's great."