Michael's Dispatches


The Pararescue medics are often called “PJs.”  The SEALs, Delta, Rangers and Green Berets all hold the PJs in high regard.  Firstly, the PJs are among the best medics in the U.S. military (we have incredible medics—so that’s a significant statement).  Secondly, PJs go through just about any combat training available, ranging from HALO to mountaineering to scuba.  They’ve got scuba gear here at Camp Bastion and have had to use it to recover soldiers who were killed after the enemy blew their vehicle into some water.  In a different war, the Pedros would be tasked to rescue pilots who might be shot down hundreds of miles into enemy territory.

As we fly out to pick up a sick soldier, the door gunners and PJs test-fire the miniguns and M-4s.

When we get low, the PJs sit with their feet hanging out the doors so they can return fire, but up high they relax and take in the scenery.  That’s the Helmand River and part of the “Green Zone.”

The Pedro commander, Major Mathew Wenthe, said that Secretary of Defense Robert Gates had issued a directive that all casualties be evacuated and arrive at the hospital within one hour of the call.  Pedros intend to fulfill that directive.

The Pedro crews at Bastion have three helicopters but they only take two on missions.  Major Wenthe gave high credit to the mechanics who are constantly changing out parts, up to and including seven engines in the last few months.  The birds are ready, and that’s the first step.

There are two Pedro shifts who work 12 hours on, 12 hours off, with no days off during the tour.  The first shift starts at 0200 and runs to 1400 and the second shift takes 1400 to 0200.

Inside the TOC (Tactical Operations Center; the HQ), Pedro has a big board where reports from around Helmand Province scroll down.  If a British unit gets into a firefight, for instance, Pedro knows about the firefight within probably a minute because the messages are relayed to TOCs that need to know.  At least one person is always watching that screen, and so you might hear a pilot say, “The Marines are in contact near such and such.”  Or, “The Brits just hit an IED near Sangin.”

The casualties are classified as Category A, Cat B, or Cat C.  Cat A basically means the soldier is probably going to die, lose a limb, or lose his eyesight if not quickly treated.  Cat B is more like someone who’s gotten shot in the foot.  It’s a big deal, but not immediately life-threatening. Cat C might be some kind of non-life-threatening illness or a broken finger.

When the Pedro crews see injuries scroll down, they rush out to the helicopters like Batman and Robin heading to the Batmobile.  Really, you’ve got to get out of the way or they will knock you down.  Within a few minutes the rotors are spinning but the Pedros actually have not yet been tasked to go.  The British-run JHTF (Joint Helicopter Task Force) is watching the same information but they also have other assets that can be sent, such as the U.S. Army or the British MERT (Medical Emergency Response Team) in the CH-47.  The Pedros are always the first who are ready to go, but it might make sense for JHTF to send MERT because MERT is a bigger helicopter and so it flies faster than Pavehawks.  Plus, the doctor on the MERT can actually pump blood into patients, because when the patient gets shot or blown up, medics on the scene radio the blood types, and the MERT crew can actually fly out with the right blood.  Pedros don’t push blood but do start IVs.  However . . . the CH-47 is a big helicopter and is easier to shoot down, and so if the landing zone is going to be tight or under fire, it might be better to send Pedro. Yet much of Afghanistan is high and hot and the CH-47 can fly in thinner air than can Pavehawks.

While the JHTF makes a decision, Pedro is waiting with rotors spinning and all they need to hear is “Go Pedro.”  Thirty seconds later they are gone.  (The British MERT CH-47 flies faster, but it’s slower to start.)

Every day is a “National Geographic” day.  Afghanistan is incredible.

As we approach the LZ, the PJs pull on rubber gloves; the helicopter is subject to getting bloody.

This rotation of Pedros had done just under 400 missions in three months.  Similar crews in Iraq might do half a dozen missions in the same period.

These PJs have treated hundreds of patients and gone into dangerous areas every day.

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