Rogers: Ramstein's Crucial Role in Aeromedical Evacuation

RAMSTEIN AIR BASE, Germany ( TheStreet) -- Nestled in the picturesque wooded hills of southern Germany, Ramstein Air Base could easily be mistaken for a bustling town in northern Michigan or upstate New York.

From the massive ultra-modern shopping mall to the Burger King ( BKW) and the car dealership packed with Ford ( F) and Dodge models, Ramstein is 4.6 square miles of America tucked away in the heart of Europe.

A hive of activity, the base is the largest of 12 Army and Air Force sites that constitute the Kaiserslautern Military Community. Some 54,000 Americans live and work within the KMC, as it is known, making the area the largest concentration of Americans outside the U.S.

Given its location, Ramstein is also a crucial hub for evacuating wounded and sick military personnel back to the U.S. from hotspots such as Afghanistan.

Although the most serious cases are treated 12 miles away at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, a Contingency Air Staging Facility (CASF) at Ramstein cares for less critical patients before they are transported back across the Atlantic.

"This is the busiest CASF there is," Major Wayne Hodson, the Facility's flight commander, told this reporter. "We see a lot of people here; there are a lot of missions."

Busy times for the facility, he added, have often been driven by specific events such as the explosion in violence that surrounded elections in Iraq, or the 2004 battle for Fallujah.

The major also highlighted the seasonal nature of fighting in Afghanistan, where Taliban activity usually increases during the warmer summer months. "The busiest single month is usually July," he said.

CASF patients typically spend less than a day at the 100-bed facility, en route to the U.S.

Air Force personnel like their role "getting people back to critical care and to their families," Hodson said. "It's a mission that everybody's proud of."

A branch of the United Services Organization (USO) within the CASF building also offers servicemembers an early taste of home. On the day this reporter visited, the smell of breakfast wafted into the USO's lounge area where patients could relax in comfortable chairs, watch TV and read.

"They feel like, finally, they are out of the war," Hodson said.

Later, in the chill early evening air, this reporter watched as three large buses converted into ambulances pulled up behind a Boeing ( BA) C-17 parked on the Ramstein runway. Inside the buses were approximately 30 patients, most of whom were ambulatory cases, or "walking wounded."

Hodson and a team of around 30 people, which included CASF staff and volunteers from across the base, carefully lifted the most injured servicemembers from the buses on litters and carried them up the C-17's ramp. Inside, the transport plane's cavernous cargo hold had already been converted into a flying hospital, and a specialist Aeromedical Evacuation (AE) team quickly began making the patients comfortable for the flight home to Andrews Air Force base.

Overseen by the Air Force's Air Mobility Command (AMC), AE is a highly sophisticated global operation, one that has benefitted greatly from advances in mobile health care technology. Examples include a self-powered pneumatic respirator that does not need a power supply, and an Extra Corporal Membrane Oxygenator (ECMO), which can be used for pulmonary and heart bypass. Since the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom on March 19, 2003, Air Force AE personnel have conducted nearly 200,000 patient movements and flown almost 42,000 sorties.

This swift transfer of patients marks a stark contrast to the Vietnam war era, according to Hodson, when injured troops would often spend long periods in hospitals far from home.

"Now, if you're injured on a Friday, you're looking to be in Landstuhl by Saturday and in the U.S. by Tuesday," he said.

-- Written by James Rogers at Ramstein Air Base, Germany.

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