Spiderman is back

Maj. John Dowling
First published in
SFOR Informer#153, December 5, 2002

Swinging precariously from a half - inch wire over Eagle Base, soldiers here could easily be considered for the leading role in the next edition of the hit film "Spider - Man." Considering the magnitude of the mission for which they train, Task Force Eagle medics are already superheroes. In fact, the soldiers train in medevac extraction procedures to respond in the event of a medical emergency.

Tuzla - Because of the widespread existence of unrecorded mines and unexploded ordnance in Bosnia and Herzegovina (BiH), anyone straying off safe routes could also necessitate being plucked by a hovering UH-60 Black Hawk of the 1159th Med. Co. (Air Ambulance).
"The hoist extraction is designed to evacuate a casualty or rescue people in an area you can't land," said Sgt. Christopher Brassard, flight medic. "If a guy is in there, we can put a medic right on top of him and get him out."
Communication of utmost importance
That may sound simple enough, but the procedure requires a continual flow of information between the medic on the wire, the crew chief on the hoist, and pilot on the stick. Communication and trust between these individuals is absolutely essential to get the distressed soldier out of a threatening environment or back to medical facilities, according to Spc. Keith Dawson, flight medic.
"Communication is extremely important. As soon as we lose communication, it's all over," said Dawson.
Air extractions are increasingly more difficult in BiH than what these aviators practice at the unit's home station in Concord, New Hampshire. Because every open field is considered a minefield, the Army has established a 125-foot hard deck, under which the aircraft cannot fly.
What is a fairly routine procedure flying over the treetops back home now becomes a challenge of both space and time with human life at stake. Add in a layer of Bosnian fog and nighttime conditions, the potential for error increases dramatically. The crews use night vision goggles (NVG) to navigate the darkness.
Darker than anything
"The NVG hoist is one of the most taxing training exercises we do," said Brassard. The goggles magnify ambient light such as the moon, stars and streetlights. In many rural areas little light exists so even when conditions are optimal, using goggles is a challenge.
"It's like going through a black hole. Here in BiH, it is darker than anything I've ever experienced in my life," said Brassard, who has been a flight medic for eight years. "It's like looking through two toilet paper tubes."
Ground ambulance medics of Task Force Med Eagle also train in air extraction procedures designed to bring patients home alive. The training began with a hoist of a simulated patient on a stretcher, a likely scenario used to expedite a victim to the hospital. The exercise gave the soldiers what they will need in the event of a real-world medevac request.
Adrenaline rush
"A lot of what you practice is basically what you're going to do on a reflex. Once it's done on reflex, it gives you confidence," said Spc. Craig Fisher, healthcare specialist. "It really helps that we're familiar with it."
"I like being able to help people, but it's a big adrenaline rush," agreed Dawson, who is a firefighter-medic back home in South Berwick, Maine. "That's why I do it on the outside."
During this rotation, the medics have already responded to eight real-world medevac transport missions, but have yet to perform an air extraction procedure. However, training they conduct now will prepare them for the eventuality of an actual air emergency extraction.

Related link:
Nations of SFOR: US

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Photos: Maj. John Dowling

Danish medic, Pvt. Stine Beinholt (l.), listens as Spc. Keith Dawson, flight medic, explains the procedures for an air medevac extraction.


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A Multinational Division (North) soldier dangles from a hovering UH-60 Black Hawk of the 1159th Med. Co. (Air Ambulance) during air extraction training at Eagle Base.


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Spc. Craig Fisher prepares a simulated patient for extraction along with Sgt. Richard Mastrangelo. Both are healthcare specialists with Co. E, 728th Main Support Bn.