Afghanistan: A Day in the Life of Air Force AeroMedics

KANDAHAR, Afghanistan ( TheStreet) -- America may be drawing down its military presence in Afghanistan by the end of 2014, but Air Force pilots and medics are still working hard to save U.S. lives.

Earlier this week, TheStreet got an opportunity to witness an Air Force Aeromedical Evacuation (AE) team in action, joining an eight-hour mission to transfer wounded personnel across the war-torn country.

"You will be seeing some impressive scenery today," I was told when I joined pilots and crew from the 772nd Expeditionary Airlift Squadron at its base in Kandahar in southern Afghanistan. "You will see the Hindu Kush spread out beneath you."

I was, however, also told to keep my body armor and helmet with me, underlining the potential dangers here. Like most military personnel at Kandahar airfield, each member of the flight crew and medical team carried a weapon.

Capt. Corey Jencks, the flight commander, explained that this is his fourth AE mission and the second of his current deployment, which began about a month ago. Our "ride" would be a Lockheed Martin ( LMT ) C-130J, which was being prepared by the medics as we walked across the runway.

Soon, Jencks called everyone together for a pre-flight briefing in the cargo hold, outlining emergency procedures and discussing the patients' requirements with Major Robert McGaughey, director of the five-person medical crew. The huge airbase at Bagram in central Afghanistan would be our first destination, followed by a short journey to an FOB, or Forward Operating Base, at Sharana in the southeastern part of the country. From there, a return to Bagram, and finally, home to Kandahar.

Shortly afterwards, I was settled in the cockpit jump seat and connected via headset to Jencks and his co-pilot, First Lt. David Mackintosh. Senior Airman Robert Lemay, one of the two loadmasters on the four-man crew, clambered up the ladder to the cockpit to give the new boy a security briefing, showing me what to do with the bag containing my emergency oxygen supply.

"We're not going to have to bail out, but, if we do, it's three long rings on the alarm bell," he added, before noting with a smile that "there's only four parachutes anyway."

The medical team began loading the first of four patients on "litters," or stretchers, onto the plane. One man, critically wounded in an IED blast, was accompanied by a three-person CCAT (Critical Care Air Transport) team, led by a flight surgeon. This specialist team would stay with him throughout the 270-mile journey to Bagram.

Another four ambulatory patients, or "walking wounded," also joined the flight.

Before long we were lifting off for Kabul. "Let's see if we can make this comfortable for these guys," Jencks told the flight crew, via his headset, as he carefully managed the airplane's ascent.

Later, Jencks described some of the flying challenges posed by AE missions. "With the patients, the priority is care -- the MCD (Medical Crew Director) told me that he wants a soft landing at Bagram, so we're going to try to do everything we can to make that happen."

Speed is also of the essence. "We're flying a little faster than we normally do so that we can get them into a civilized hospital as soon as possible," he said. "We normally do that if we have critical care patients."

Bagram, just outside Kabul, is a crucial staging post for seriously injured U.S. troops travelling to the military's state-of-the-art Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in southern Germany.

Such is the speed and sophistication of this operation that a soldier injured in Afghanistan on Friday could expect to be in Landstuhl by Saturday and in the U.S. by Tuesday. This vast and sophisticated network is overseen by the Air Force's Air Mobility Command (AMC).

As predicted, I was soon able to enjoy the view, something I had been unable to do in the largely windowless cargo hold of the Boeing ( BA) C-17 that transported me to Afghanistan just a day earlier. The arid plain where Kandahar is situated quickly gave way to impressive snow-capped peaks, and in just over an hour we were approaching Kabul, which sits in a natural bowl amid the impressive expanse of the Hindu Kush.

As we descended into Bagram, I glimpsed two helicopters far below us firing off flares just beyond the base's perimeter. Moments later we were on the ground. When the plane came to a halt, the two loadmasters quickly lowered the cargo ramp, and the patients were swiftly but carefully transferred to waiting ambulances. The IED victim was off first, accompanied by his CCAT team, his litter packed with medical devices.

There were no wounded passengers on the next leg of the trip to Sharana, although some pallets of cargo were loaded and a small group of soldiers in full battle dress clambered aboard.

Once in the air, the landscape changed yet again as the mountains opened up to reveal verdant valleys and even the occasional lake -- all a far cry from the Kandahar dust bowl we'd left behind us. Fields of poppies were visible in the rural patchwork.

The 110-mile journey also gave me a chance to really study the Afghan walled compounds that I have seen so many times on TV. As a friend and veteran told me prior to my trip, these buildings seem to belong to an earlier, more feudal era. This, combined with the marked lack of traffic on dusty roads, really felt like watching some earlier period of history.

While I was admiring the scenery, though, Jencks and Mackintosh were dealing with the technical details of landing at Sharana, some 7,000 feet above sea level.

"Because of the field elevation here, the aircraft doesn't perform as well as it would do at a lower elevation field," explained the captain, explaining that he uses a different type of landing maneuver to deal with the altitude.

Soon after, the landing was skillfully accomplished and we picked up a walking patient at the heavily fortified base. Before long we were climbing out of Sharana, heading for Bagram.

Not long into the flight, however, Jencks was forced to execute an extremely sharp (and gut-pummeling) evasive maneuver to avoid an oncoming plane, quickly earning the praise of his co-pilot and the terrified passenger in the jump seat. Clearly, the busy skies above Afghanistan can be a dangerous place.

Thankfully, the rest of the journey was less eventful, and we were soon back in the bustling Bagram airbase. While some of the medical team grabbed a well-earned break, TheStreet asked Major McGaughey to compare the current situation with his previous deployments. The major replied that he's seeing fewer injured and less serious injuries than two years ago.

While the traditional Afghan summer fighting season has not yet begun, many U.S. personnel are hopeful that the slowing casualty count will continue as the drawdown gains pace.

Loaded up again with cargo and troops, the C-130J set off on its final journey of the day, co-pilot Mackintosh now guiding the transport giant through a thunderstorm and limited visibility to finally reach its Kandahar base.

Pioneered in the aftermath of World War II, Aeromedical Evacuation plays a critical role at the heart of the U.S. military. 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.

By the end of 2014, however, most Americans will be hoping that missions like the one I saw become a thing of the past.

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