Life and death on a medevac helicopter
Taking pictures of people who are suffering and in pain is never an easy experience. From the jump seat in the back of a Blackhawk medevac helicopter, a constant stream of injured, dead and dying men and women passed in front of me during a recent week-long embed. The wounds were as varied as the patients; an Afghan soldier with kidney stones to a Marine whose legs had been nearly severed by an IED blast.
The medevac helicopter crews were part of the 101st Airborne Division based at Camp Dwyer, a dusty Marine base in Afghanistan’s Helmand Province. During my one week embed with Charlie Company, I would generally work from 6am until it got dark around 7:30pm. The busiest times of day seemed to be in the morning and then again in the afternoon, but calls were received 24 hours a day. About 50% of our patients were Afghan nationals, both military and civilians; with injuries ranging from amputated limbs blown off by IED’s to stab wounds from domestic disputes. The military medical facilities offer the same level of care to locals and soldiers alike, in no small part to gain a bit of good will in this hostile and volatile province.
One morning I was in my tent when the call went out over the radios, “Medevac Medevac Medevac” I joined the crew as we sprinted to the helicopter and within minutes we were airborne. The noise inside was deafening, and earplugs brought the level down to a dull roar. After about 15 minutes, the pilot increased our speed to around 175 mph (280 km/h) and we dropped to tree-top level for our final approach. The helicopter rotors kicked up a cloud of dust as we touched down and the flight medic jumped out to help board the wounded.
A group of Marines were already running towards the door carrying a litter with an injured comrade. The soldier was conscious as they placed him onto the floor and one Marine reached out to shake his hand before leaving. A moment later, a second litter arrived with a more serious casualty. The Marine had no vital signs and the flight medic immediately began CPR while the crew chief pumped air into his lungs. They worked on the wounded man for the entire flight back to the hospital, about 20 minutes, and as soon as they arrived, a nurse jumped onto the gurney and continued to pump his chest.
We returned to headquarters and I asked the flight medic about the second Marine. He shook his head and said he had probably died before we even got there. I found out later that the Marine who died was 19-years-old, and had been deployed only one month earlier. The crew began to clean the blood and bandages from the rear of the helicopter in preparation for the next mission. I walked back to my tent to download my pictures, wondering how any image could tell such a story.