No Guns, No Fear

Robert Alt

July 26, 2004

Taji Airbase, Iraq—Skimming just above the power lines at speeds approaching 150 knots, these Blackhawk helicopters dodge enemy fire to be among the first on the scene when things go wrong. The crews fly some of the oldest choppers in the Army, and yet they go where pilots flying more modern equipment dare not follow. They never fire a single shot, yet if you are injured in battle, they are your best hope for making it out alive. They are the men of the 45th Medical Company, 421st Evac. Unit—better known simply as the medevacs—a group which lives by the motto: “We fly so you don’t die.”

The day I embedded with the medevacs, they picked me up from the Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad after dropping off a patient. The unit had just relocated from Baghdad International Airport to its new base at Taji to facilitate the airport’s conversion to civilian use. The crew’s new facilities boasted no showers and intermittent power. Given the small and sparse quarters, the guys decided to have their post-mission briefing outside, where they used the hot desert sun to try, albeit unsuccessfully, to defrost some pizzas.

This particular company has 15 rescue aircraft in country spread out between Baghdad and a few southern bases, as well as three choppers currently assigned to Afghanistan. The medevac unit covers an enormous geographic area: from Baghdad almost all the way to Kuwait in the far south. On this day, I was assigned to a crew headed up by Cpt. Roderick Stout.

The normal day for the crew consists of a 12-hour rotating shift, during which the men await the signal on their radio indicating a mission while performing a schedule of routine maintenance on their chopper. When a call comes in, the bird is off the ground in a matter of minutes. Flying in Iraq presents unique challenges for Blackhawk pilots, who maneuver the choppers low and fast to avoid enemy fire. By skimming just above the surface, an observer on the ground will be unable to see the helicopter until it is just overhead. At the speed these Blackhawks travel, that gives the enemy very little time to fire. This requires great skill by the pilots, who must fly the same way at night in a country where tall buildings and power lines are infrequently marked with beacons. Even with the aid of night vision, the pilots must take the additional precaution of memorizing tall structures to avoid inadvertent collision.

This low altitude acrobatics is made all the more necessary because, under the Geneva Convention, the crews are restricted to defensive weapons when they display the red cross on their vehicle. Accordingly, the Blackhawks themselves are equipped with no weapons—prompting another of the crew’s informal mottos: No guns, no fear. Each member of the crew is permitted a sidearm, which they joke would be about as effective as a boomerang against enemies armed with Kalashnikovs and RPGs.

While the defensive weapons restriction may make sense in combat against an enemy that respects the Geneva Convention, such niceties simply do not apply in Iraq, where terrorists all-too-often view the red cross as a target conveniently painted on the side of the aircraft. For this reason, the crew informed me that military leadership debated removing the red crosses from the choppers in order to allow the crews some armament. Ultimately, however, they decided against it—not so much out of a unilateral devotion to the Geneva Convention, but because of what the red cross means to the American soldiers. As Cpt. Roderick Stout put it, “[i]f your buddy has been hurt, there’s something about seeing that red cross.” I soon found that it meant something to the medevacs, too. When I asked to take some pictures of the crew, they all wanted to be standing next to the red cross—the symbol of their lifesaving mission.

When the choppers arrive at the scene, the ground forces have cleared a landing zone, and the patient has normally received some treatment from medics on the ground. The crew was full of praise for the Army and Marine guys on the ground who provide sufficient cover for the birds to land. Indeed they could only recall a couple of occasions where they were waived off because the zone was too hot.

The Blackhawks can accommodate up to 4 patients on stretchers, or 8 patients if they are ambulatory. Once on board, the first stop for the soldier is the Forward Surgical Team, or “Mini-Mash,” which performs “meatball surgery” in order to stabilize the patient for transfer to the Combat Support Hospital (CSH). The CSH (pronounced “Cash”) is able to perform more advanced surgery and testing before transferring the patients to the airbase for transfer to Army medical facilities in Germany. In some cases, this series of transfers can be fast. Major Knapp recalled a case in which the crew picked up a soldier with an arm severed by an IED in the field, took him to the Mini-Mash, then to the CSH, and finally to the airbase for transfer to Germany all in the same day.

Of course, in a war zone, you never know what to expect when you arrive at the scene. No one knows this better than the crew’s medic, Sergeant Edward Kostelnik, a former Navy brat whose moustache completes his Cheshire grin. He recounted to me a call he and the crew received to fly down to Chosin to pick up a single patient. When they arrived, however, the crew was told that there were now two patients: a fourteen-year-old boy with a gunshot wound, and a woman with a gunshot wound to the leg. Sgt. Kostelnik—better known to the crew as “Father K”—got to work reconfiguring the aircraft for two patients. When he went to retrieve the patients, however, he saw that he was very close to having three passengers: the woman was pregnant—very pregnant. This was a literally a nightmare come true. The Blackhawks provide very little room to work, and Father K had been having a recurring nightmare in which he was forced to deliver a baby in the chopper. The crew made it in time, only to learn that the hospital was completely full—so full that they tried to send the patients away. The woman’s water had already broken, and so departing from the hospital would have given a whole new meaning to the word “airborne.” Ultimately, the crew was able to convince the hospital to receive the woman, and Father K’s nightmare was staved off for another day.

Joining Father K and Cpt. Stout on the helicopter is crew chief Pfc. Jeffrey Patterson, who at 18-years-old holds the title of the youngest member of the crew. As you might expect, Jeffrey has seen a lot for his young years since he arrived in Iraq. But the thing that surprised him the most is the lack of medical services available to the Iraqis. He recounted seeing a 2-year-old Iraqi girl with burns over 65% of her body sent home to die by local doctors, who lacked either the skill or the supplies to help her. (The United States increased the budget for the Ministry of Health sixty-fold for the next fiscal year to help address this problem.) In speaking with Pfc. Patterson, it was immediately apparent that his father clearly has had a tremendous influence on him. Jeffrey joined the Army to follow in his father’s footsteps, and his pursuit of aviation is the fulfillment of an interest his father sparked. The elder Patterson is clearly proud of his son: no one walks into his office without seeing a picture of Jeffrey, or without hearing about how he is serving his country in Iraq.

Like most of the men and women serving over in Iraq, these men have made sacrifices to be here. Father K had been accepted to UNLV, but that would have to wait another year. First Lieutenant Murphy was spending this year away from his wife, only to learn that she has been called up to serve as an MP in Iraq next year. Yet in spite of this two year separation, Lt. Murphy was firm in his conviction concerning the mission in Iraq. With great earnestness, he explained that “[w]e need to be here for the Iraqi people… for the guy trying to farm a few square feet of desert.”

The day shift came and went without a call—which is always good news for the men and women on the ground. The crew and I made our way over to the chow hall, only to learn that a call came in for an IED victim a few minutes after the shift change. Cpt. Stout had told me earlier in the day that “[w]hen the helicopters land and you have to wash out the helicopter, it brings it home.” That certainly was the case this night.

By now, the sun had set, and our departure was delayed by the evening’s mission. The crew from the chopper that picked up the IED victim suggested that based on what they had seen, we faced a reasonable risk of taking fire on the way back. One of the guys prepping the helicopter joked with our pilot that if he saw something coming toward him fast that looked like a fiery orange glowing basketball, that’s an RPG. Thankfully, we would be spared of any flaming basketballs this evening.

Day after day, these men jump into a 16-year-old, unarmed helicopter to fly to the scene of some of the worst fighting in the country. They do so without hesitation, and they do so to save lives. In the tradition of Catch-22, many observers will call these men crazy, but to the men and women whose lives depend on them, these men are simply heroes.

Robert D. Alt is a Fellow in Legal and International Affairs at The John M. Ashbrook Center for Public Affairs at Ashland University currently reporting from Iraq. You can follow his daily progress at No Left Turns.