Into an Afghan hot zone with a ‘Dustoff’ crew
Advisory: The following post contains graphic content which some people may find distressing.
Everyone suffers in war. No exceptions. I have been travelling to Afghanistan now for over three years. Covering the conflict from an outsider’s perspective, not getting involved or emotionally attached to the people I photograph. This is hard. Maintaining perspective and impartialility each day is challenging.
Watching soldiers die on the battlefield for a belief in something so far remote from them, is at times very difficult. They fight because they are told to and because if they do not, they will probably be killed by an ill-equipped and under trained Afghan insurgent - or a farmer with a grudge and no money to feed his family.
The IED threat is everywhere. Soldiers are not the only ones to be injured, maimed or killed by theses barbaric devices. Small children are constantly being injured while playing in fields or near paths that are frequented by coalition forces. The result is devastating for everyone.
I was in Helmand province, southern Afghanistan, on Monday 7th June embedded with the “Dustoff” crews from Charlie Company, 6th Battalion Combat Airmobile Brigade (CAB) of the 101st Airborne Division.
I was with the Blackhawk helicopter that flew first into the battle, to pick up injured US soldiers.
Commonly referred to as Dustoff, which means-“Dedicated Unhesitating Service To Our Fighting Forces” the men and women of Charlie Company risk their lives every time they jump in the aircraft to go and save some poor Marine who has been blown up or shot.
Their motto is, “Never refuse a mission, never return with an empty helicopter and the needs of the patient come first”.
The role of the Dustoff is to evacuate wounded personal from coalition outposts Forward Operating Bases (FOBs), Patrol bases (PB) and Combat Outposts (COP). Their job is to not only pick up wounded military personnel but also civilian casualties, including the people that are trying to kill them.
The main mission is to reach the casualty with the “golden hour”, the window of time before a casualty goes from being treatable to becoming a fatality.
The Nine Liner - the coded system used by the military to call and rate the priority of the casualty-came over the intercom, “One injured Marine, sucking chest wound”. The boys started prepping the medical gear for the patient. The radio sounded again, the message came though I had been dreading: “Hot LZ (Landing Zone) enemy in tree line, have Marines pinned down, taking accurate fire on position, break”.
This was it; I was on my way into a shit fight with the Dustoff crew. We arrived over the area but there was mass confusion on where the enemy were firing from.
The cobras were trying to confirm the enemy positions so they could “light them up” and kill them.
Another call over the radio. “Patient is crashing”.
Another minute or two, and then we were given approval to go in. The engines roared as we came in quick. Nose up and then we were on the ground. The side doors flew back open and the medic raced out heading towards the Marines. He had run about 200 metres when he finally reached a group of Marines struggling under the weight of carrying their badly injured comrade.
They all raced back to the helo and placed him inside. The Marines jumped out, the doors were slammed shut and we were back in the air.
The medic started work on the injured Marine straight away. He was in a very bad way. He had taken a round to the upper left side of his chest. He was bleeding profusely. The medic worked quickly to administer some care.
Even so, the crew chief and the medic did not stop CPR during the whole flight. They tried everything in their power to save that boy’s life.
I could see Adam kneeling upright in the back of the helo pressing down on the chest of the Marine trying to get his heart to start. We were still a good 15 minutes out from the hospital.
We came in fast and low to the Role 3 hospital. The door flew open and the medic frantically waved towards the waiting medical staff. It was a slow process. The medical staff tried to get him onto a wheeled litter but it had got stuck in the makeshift hard stand.
I dropped my cameras, grabbed both stretcher handles and pulled upwards. I took his weight so the medics could untangle the trolley. They eventually disengaged it and took him towards the hospital. When the boys returned we lifted off and flew back to the Dustoff hardstand. The back of the aircraft was a real mess. There was blood and used medical supplies everywhere.
Once the engines were shut off the rest of the detachment came out and started to help with stripping the armour platting from the floor so they could wash out all of the blood. They handed out plastic gloves and began to scrub the floor. I put my cameras down and started to help with the cleanup.
Seven Marines had been caught in an IED blast, two were confirmed “Angels” - the call sign for friendly KIA. Travelling at 100 feet above the deck at a speed of 140mph we reached the LZ in a matter of minutes. We picked up three injured priority B patients in our helo and the other Blackhawk got the rest.
We took the walking wounded. Two had blast or shrapnel injuries to their heads and the other boy had copped shrapnel in the left side of his face. The medic, Sergeant Bradley Robbins went to work. Crew Chief Jason Norris looked out for incoming rounds.
Pilot in Charge, Warrant Officer, Adam Stratton and co-pilot Steve King got the bird in the air and we made our way back to Dwyer to drop the patients at the Role3 hospital.
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