By Clay Coleman
I watch as the ants crawl up my arm—just like they did on the fields of Pest—where we’d follow the river up over the city—flying naked and exposed to all those below.
We four were a crew like no other—but your image I kept close through the years—you cried when I said I couldn’t save you—you pulled the trigger, and blew a hole into my heart.
Kandahar Province, Afghanistan—Feb. 18, 2007
Wearing heavy black coats over sand-colored uniforms, I watch them as they start to put on their flight gear. Cursing as they swing into their bulky flight vests, the men tighten their chinstraps, before walking up the ramp and disappearing into the blue light that enveloped the cabin.
We were members of the U.S. Army’s only special operations aviation unit, the 160th Special Operations Aviation Regiment. Based out of Ft. Campbell, Ky., we conducted attack, assault, and casualty evacuations, usually at night, flying at high speeds and low altitudes. But we were heading back to Bagram now. Our mission completed; all we had left to do was fly the two hours back to Bagram, break down our three MH-47E helicopters, and get them ready for transport.
I watch as one of the crew chiefs from my aircraft points to a line of Rangers waiting beyond our rotor blades. The Team Leader nods, then standing his Rangers up, leads them single file into the helo’s cabin. After the last one is in and connects to a safety harness on the floor, I stamp out my cigarette and enter the aircraft behind them. The MH-47 is the special operations version of the Vietnam era CH-47 Chinook, a twin-engine, heavy-lift helicopter. Designed to transport troops and haul heavy equipment, the special operations version is larger, faster, and carries more fuel than the regular Army version.
As the pilots go through their checks and the crew chiefs scan outside for hazards, the engines start spooling up as my aircraft (SUMO 42) lines up behind the Flight Lead and Air Mission Commander in SUMO 41. I’m the only medic on this flight. Even though we have Ranger medics spread throughout the three aircraft, and SUMO 43 is carrying a contingent of Air Force crash and rescue personnel, any injuries during the flight would be the responsibility of SUMO 42, my responsibility. But I wasn’t worried. By this time, I had 16 years of experience as a regular Army flight medic. I had treated the wounded in Somalia, Bosnia, and Kosovo long before I joined the 160th, and as far as I was concerned, this was just a two-hour flight home.
Sitting in the center seat, slightly behind both pilots, I lower my night vision goggles and watch as the Rangers stretch out and fall asleep on the cabin floor. I never understood how anyone could sleep in a moving helicopter until I had about 500 hours of flight time. After a while, the vibration will put the most staunch insomniac to sleep. As I was about to doze off for the remainder of the flight, I noticed the radio chatter in my headset slowed down to a trickle. Puzzled, I turned and looked outside the pilot’s window only to hear that SUMO 41 had entered a storm cell.
As I snapped awake, the tension in the aircraft suddenly changed. SUMO 41 encountered bad weather—the radio chatter announcing zero visibility, with fog and icing. We were about to enter the cell, as well. Unlike other aircraft in the Army’s inventory, the 160th had the most up to date avionics package. Its weather radar could see through clouds. Out the window, the ice started to build-up on the antennas. Sleep was the furthest thing from my mind.
Once in the storm, my eyes never leave the pilots. The copilot stares at his instruments, while the pilot shares in the workload by providing him with updates. The four crew chiefs, two in the front and two near the ramp, have their heads out their windows as they call out ice build-up to the rest of the crew. A faint voice over the radio silences all the noise around us. SUMO 43 lost an engine after going into the clouds.
That silence is almost deafening. Everyone knows that our aircraft are heavy. Filled with fuel, ammo, and personnel, the weight is beyond the capability of a single engine. The only way SUMO 43 can land is if the pilots perform a roll-on landing. With only one engine, the aircraft cannot hover.
A few minutes later, with no response from SUMO 43, I start to get worried. It was February in Afghanistan. If the aircraft crashed, the survivors stood an excellent chance of suffering from hypothermia or frostbite. Not only that, but SUMO 43 carried our crash rescue team and all their equipment. If I did have to extract a patient from a downed aircraft, I’d have nothing to get them out with.
At this point, SUMO 41 and SUMO 42 paths started to diverge. The Air Mission Commander in SUMO 41, in conjunction with the Flight Lead, decided to come down in altitude and see if his aircraft could turn-around and backtrack to SUMO 43’s last known position. At 50 feet, SUMO 41 still couldn’t see the ground, so they decide to fly to Ghazni, a village almost halfway between Kandahar and Bagram, to refuel and plan the recovery mission. Meanwhile, the pilots of SUMO 42 announced that they, too, were turning around and going back to SUMO 43. We tried twice to get to SUMO 43 but finally had to turn around after ice build-up caused a radar malfunction.
When both aircraft finally made it to Ghazni and were refueled, the pilots and AMC went into the refuel point’s operations center and started making phone calls. By this time, our higher headquarters was aware of what had happened, and the Air Force Crash and Rescue teams in-country launched. Also, a small ground force out of Forward Operating Base Wolverine, located just North of SUMO 43 last position, was racing to the site, as well.
An Air force F-15, flying high over Afghanistan, was tasked to SUMO 43 last know position. The pilot made radio contact with a survivor on the ground. The Ranger told the voice over the radio that he broke his hip in the crash. He said he is sure of this because he broke his hip once before. He also said that 10 people were outside of the aircraft, and 12 more were still unaccounted for. I learn all this, as a runner informs me to take all my medical gear and move it to SUMO 41.
Because of the issues with SUMO 42’s radar, the Flight Lead and AMC put me on SUMO 41. We’re too heavy, so we have to strip the aircraft of all ammo. The crew chiefs work frantically off-loading ammo, while I find the Ranger Team Leader and ask for a couple of medics. After he assigns me two young Ranger medics, we transload my medical gear, as I go over everything and how to use it. The pilots race out to the aircraft with some new information. The Air Force has just recovered nine patients and is working on extracting more. The Humvees from FOB Wolverine arrived.
The weather still hasn’t cleared up by the time we take off—a single ship flying back into the clouds. The Flight Lead tells the crew the weather is breaking at the crash site and that we’d be out of it shortly. I use the few minutes before arrival to go over the plan with the Ranger medics. Not knowing how many patients we’ll have, or the conditions on the ground, I tell the medics to stay with me in the aircraft when we arrive. I needed all the help I could get, and I didn’t want to be running around the crash site, looking for help. Let them bring casualties to us.
When we arrived at the crash site, I focused on the cabin and where I wanted patients loaded, but once the ramp came down, I wasn’t prepared for the onslaught that took place. No sooner did we touch the ground than soldiers started rushing the aircraft, loading five litter patients, and seven fallen angels. The loading didn’t go as I had wanted. In my haste to come up with a plan for the cabin, I wasn’t expecting body bags, and since I didn’t meet them outside the aircraft and tell them what I wanted or where the patients needed to go, they loaded the wounded first, and the fallen angels last. I didn’t realize it at the time, but that error would haunt me back in Kandahar.
As soon as the last casualty is loaded in the aircraft, the crew chief brings up the ramp, and SUMO 41 lifts off. Immediately, the Ranger medics and I get to work. Our first casualty was in respiratory distress, so after securing the patient’s airway, I tell one of the Ranger medics to stay with him. Down a medic, we continue climbing over patients as we move throughout the cabin. One of the patients starts getting combative and attempts to stand up. I tell him to lay back down, and while I’m talking to him, the AMC who had been watching the patients from the center seat starts frantically waving me over.
He points to a Ranger who was lying on a litter and tells me he’s not breathing. He said he did a sternal rub on the patient and didn’t get a response. Grabbing the available Ranger medic, I kneel next to the patient and pull out my cricothyroidotomy kit. Comprised of a surgical blade, endotracheal tube, gauze, alcohol, and suture, the idea is to punch a hole through the cricothyroid membrane at the patient’s throat so that the patient can breathe. Kneeling next to the patient’s head, I hand the Ranger medic my kit, asking him to help me with the procedure. Once everything is ready, I take the surgical blade and plunge into the patient’s throat, penetrating the membrane. Just then, the patient opens his eyes, starts slapping my hand, and tells me to stop it. The Ranger medic and I look at each other. He takes out a piece of hydrogel. It’s a sticky substance, used by the military as an occlusive dressing. He cuts out a small circle and places it over the site as I pull the blade out. I tell him to stay with the patient and monitor his airway. Instead of wrapping my head around what had just happened, I turned him over to the Ranger medic instead.
After another 15 minutes of going from patient to patient, SUMO 41 finally arrives at Kandhar. Once we get permission from the tower, our aircraft heads directly for the crash pad and the waiting crowd of doctors, nurses, and medics. When the aircraft finally comes to a stop, and the ramp goes down, medics start entering the aircraft but are blocked by the body bags in their way. I direct them to take the fallen angels off the aircraft and lay them outside so that we can get to the patients.
After offloading the patients, I jump out and walk over to the fallen angels. Just then, SUMO 41 starts to roll forward, so I grab one of the crash pad NCO’s and tell him to have his soldiers lay on the bags, so the helicopter doesn’t blow them down the runway. He looks at me incredulously, but when he watches me lay on them, he follows suit. There was no way I was going to let my brothers get blown down that runway.
After I escort the fallen angels into the morgue adjacent to the hospital, I stand out in front and take off my flight vest. It feels good to take it off finally. As I’m standing there, catching my breath, a soldier walks up to me and says he’s from my organization. After he identifies himself, he takes me to an empty tent and pulls out a laptop. He asks if I had a message to send back to Bagram. After thinking about it for a few moments, I write:
CW3 John Quinlan
CW3 Hershel McCants Jr.
SGT Adam Wilkinson
SPC Brandon Gordon
SPC Travis Vaughn
TSGT Scott Duffman
PFC Ryan Garbs
PFC Kristofer Thomas
All sensitive items recovered.
But it does follow. When you think you’ve erased all the heartache, all the pain, those memories come rushing back when you least suspect it. As a medic, we do our best to mask that pain, to always be there for those who are sick and in need of help, but who looks after us? Who comes to our rescue?
When I finally came home, broken and tired from all the wars, I was needed one last time, but I wasn’t there. For the first time since I can remember, I was busy healing myself.
But your loss will always follow me.