Sunday, June 24, 2007

Slave to the System

"Dude, you're not on the nine-line!"

"What, your kidding me! I'm going to have to go on this one! Either that, or the patient stays on the deck, and we re-submit another request."

"I already have a monitor." The flight medic yells above the roar of the rotors 20 yards away.

I shrug my shoulders, as if to say "What now?"

The flight medic yanks a thumb with a resigned "get in" to the blacked-out helo silhouetted against the soft glow of green landing lights. I grab my flight bag, run ahead, and jump in. The Army evac team, on my heels, carries my patient up alongside, and I help them guide the litter along the carousel skids.

Patient settled in, and vital signs stable. Struggling to quickly get my 5-point harness on before take off. I wasn't fast enough to get buckled in, but no matter: takeoff was soft as butter. Besides, as soon as we are in the air, I have to hop up and start assessing our casualty.
VBIED attack: I follow my patient from the trauma bay to the operating room, and coordinate getting him to the Baghdad CSH just as Martin, Tim, and RH finish repairing abdominal wounds, a blown out knee, and a gaping right shoulder injury.
Anytime a patient is critically ill, and is either unstable or needs to remain ventilated, a flight nurse goes on the mission. We bring along specialized ventilators and monitors, and unless the flight medic happens to be infinitely familiar with our equipment, can become a complicated mess in flight.
Hence, the need for me to be included on the "nine-line", which is essentially a mission tracker that includes casualty identification, flight route, and crew. If I go on the mission, all coordinating services need to know I am on that helo, similar to any flight manifest throughout the rest of the world. Otherwise, if something happens during the mission, the Tactical Recovery of Aircraft and Personnel (TRAP) team won't have any idea who I am or why I'm near a crash site. Wrong assumptions would put me at high risk. Not to mention if I somehow get separated from the aircraft: they won't know to look for me, if they never knew I was on the mission to begin with. I ended up running into complications, but it wasn't anything worse than getting stranded at another base while trying to figure out how to get back to Ramadi.

The patient did well. Stable for the flight, I busied myself with watching his oxygen status, changing out oxygen tanks, and giving IV fluids and some pain medications. Flight medic taps me on the shoulder and signals "two mikes out". I have just enough time to clamp and store his IV fluids back into the "hot pocket" and check the oxygen tank one more time. Once we touch down, it's too late for housekeeping. We count tasks in seconds, and have precious few to spare. Flashes of light off to my right as our Blackhawk launches countermeasure flares. In all reality, I'm too busy with my patient to care. It registers in the back of my mind "Hmm, wonder why we're launching chaffe?" I hear the pilots and crew chief talking over the "comms", and they don't know why it launched either. Our countermeasure flares can be triggered manually, but are always on sensors, too. The helo computer sensed some sort of heat threat, but none of the crew saw anything. Safe assumption it was just excess heat from a roof vent. Sixty seconds later, and the Blackhawk touches down in Baghdad. We carry the patient to a 4X4 "gator" and drive 25 yards to the ED entrance. Patient care is transferred to the Army ED physician, and the medic and I grab flight equipment and monitors for the dash back to the helo.
Here is where my return to Ramadi gets a monkey wrench thrown into the mix. The Blackhawk crew had no idea they were going to have to go back to Ramadi that night, and were caught unprepared. Visibility was closing in to around 2 miles in Anbar Province, so they broke the bad news to me: I was going to Taquaddum with them, and would have to find my own way back. They offered to drop me off at TQ surgical.

Small consolation...and here's where the "it's not just a job, it's an adventure" part kicks in:
Random thoughts as we were targeted with a volley of RPG fire on our appoach to TQ:
"How long can a Blackhawk hold a hard bank at 90 degrees to the Earth?" as the pilot violently pulled the helo left, right, and left again to avoid being hit.
"Can my heart really go this fast?"
"I can't believe I'm not on the friggin nine-line; they'll have no idea who I am if this thing goes down...$%*! figures!"
Sandwiched in between the flight medic (primary job when not taking care of patients: the pilot's eyes on the left, or port, side of the Blackhawk) and the crew chief (starboard eyes), I'm totally reliant on theirs' and the pilots' skill at evasive maneuvers. I'm not sure what I was doing during that wild forty five seconds, but my thighs were burning sore for three days after this one. If there's a way for humans to actually make diamonds, this has to be one of the fastest methods.
We hauled tail to the TQ flight line, pilots cursing and creating new explitives along the way, Cobra gunship straining to keep up, and were met by the ground crew. Spotlights were hastily set up right on the flight line, and aircrew crawled all over the craft to assess for damage. Lead pilot jumps out and says "Whew! There's one to write home about, Doc!"
Truth be told, I'm getting to the point where I would rather write about how many days (82) I have left...

I spent two days trying to figure out how to get a flight back to Ramadi. It normally takes two or three days minimum to reserve a seat for a flight. For instance, an Assault Support Request (ASR) requires on average a three day wait. So I tried to get on a routine medical run the next night. The "milk" run consists of a few H-46 helicopters that fly patients back to their units every so often. They made two passes through Taquaddum that night. The first time, I was bumped by a patient and their escort going to Balad. "No problem" they said. "We'll get you when we come back later tonight". Around 2 AM, five hours later, they touched down at TQ surgical again. I was on the flight line standing with 100 lbs. worth of flight equipment and monitors waiting for the signal to hop on. Never happened. They briefly stopped, a Marine ran out of the back (he was returning to his unit), and they kept right on rolling through. I was stood up like an ugly prom date as I watched the helo quickly disappear into the ink black sky.

The next night was equally as frustrating, but a little more fruitful: the Army was able to put in an emergency ASR, and told me to be at the Taquaddum flight terminal at 8:30 PM for a 10:30 PM flight. Caught a ride to the terminal and lugged all my crap to the manifest check in. They had no idea who I was, and couldn't find my flight number anywhere. "Sorry, Sir, but you aren't in our system. If you want, you can go to the billeting tent and we can put you on standby." Completely torqued, I started calling everyone and their brother to find out how I got into this mess. I called Charlie Medical and the Ramadi air terminal: no luck. I disappeared from the system. Great. I called the Ramadi air tracker next, and they found an open seat on a Blackhawk later that night, but it was going to the TQ medical pad. Stranded in the wrong place again! I called TQ surgical and asked if anyone could come back out to the terminal and give me a ride. "But we just dropped you off!" an exasperated corspman defeatedly states into the phone.
"Yeah, yeah, I know. Just a slave to the system."


Bruce said...

Amazing! You get a ride you don't want, just to not get the ride you do.
Very happy to hear your safe.

karin in tx said...

Yeah!!!!! The voice from the desert returns....and none too soon. Great always!
It's like we are right there with you...and actually we spirit and in prayer!

Rejenia said...

Sorry for your adventure, but you paint such vivid pictures, I'm crying from giggling. I see you standing all alone with the equipment on the flight line with eyes darting back and forth. I assume you made it "home" fine. I was glad to see Desert Flier in bold on the RSS.

mamaworecombatboots said...

Whew! Glad to see you back safe and sound, even if exasperated. How's the heat? God Bless...

zrr said...

This one is great! Make sure you get it into a book! Much better then many of the "journalistic works" out there.

Cynthia said...

YAY!!! You're back!!! Great story!! Scary but great!!!

Bag Blog said...

"An ugly prom date" now that is funny stuff. I'm sure it was frustrating and tiring too, but I am glad you are safe and sharing with us again.

David M said...

Ignore the previous comment, Link Corrected

Trackbacked by The Thunder Run - Web Reconnaissance for 06/26/2007
A short recon of what’s out there that might draw your attention, updated throughout the check back often.

Matti said...

I love your sense of humor. That is some pretty scary stuff, followed by some pretty frustrating stuff, and yet I'm cracking up over here because of the way you talk about it. I'm really glad you made it back safe.

Angel Laura said...

Glad your back, your Angel was worried.

BrianFH said...

The real story is that some dingwad(s) who don't know how and when to do data entry cost you and the system a whole lot of expensive time and hassle. Whoever set that system up should be butt-scorched for not having quick error-correction access procedures built-in.

Just a comment from a systems designer for your enjoyment and contemplation.

Anonymous said...

very exciting to read about your approach to taq... glad everyone on the chopper made it unscathed. your reporting helps to fill in the blanks and keep us apprised of what is going on over there. 4S ( stay strong and stay safe)