At every level of war, from tactical to operational to strategic, we’ve shown exceptional adaptability, mental and physical agility, and a willingness to audible early when the enemy changes their formation at the last second. But for some crazy reason that can only be tied to weak kneed senior leaders, in-service turf wars, and gross politics, there is one thing we still can’t seem to fix, even if it kills. We’ve known for years that the Taliban and Al-Qaida fighters target specifically dressed personnel. They aim for the American advisors that wear uniforms distinctly different in color and shape than their Afghan counterparts. It’s smart on their part and something we should have seen well before it became a problem. Our forces were quick to learn, though, and have been taking steps to prevent standing out to the enemy for years now. The reason is obvious—kill the leader and the masses crumble. They aren’t the first to realize that standing out from the crowd isn’t such a good idea on the battlefield.
Combat medics realized long ago that the enemy knows that killing the medic means the other wounded might die. This is still true on today’s battlefield, especially if the Army medical evacuation (MEDEVAC) helicopter is grounded at the departure airfield by general officer policy number whatever because it must wait for an armed escort before launching.
Two thousand years ago, if a warrior was wounded in battle, he bled out where he lay. Nobody was coming to help. Fast forward about 18 centuries and some bright guy in Napoleon’s ranks decided it was a good idea to employ the “inept and expendable” troops to serve as aid and litter teams.
In our grandfathers’ life time, WWII and Korean War front line medics wore red crosses on their helmets and red arm bands to distinguish themselves from their fighting peers. The Korean War also ushered in helicopters flying in to evacuate the wounded from the tip of the spear back to surgical field hospitals. In Vietnam these same helicopters started to bring medics with them to allow life saving measures to begin in flight back to higher level care.
At some point, at least by Vietnam, these helicopters started flying into hot areas with red crosses painted on their sides and noses. Of course, shooting at anything with a red cross is like shooting into a mosque window. We all know that because we follow rules. We just don’t do it, unless there are obvious reasons to believe the building is no longer functioning as a no-fire structure, like an RPG rocket was fired at you from an upper window. We learned about 55 years ago that it was stupid to have American combat medics continue to paint identifying red crosses on their helmet or wear red arm bands. Why? Because our WWII and Korean War troops were sniped at by enemy sharpshooters. The enemy didn’t follow our gentlemen rules. They baited our medics and medical evacuation helicopters and tried to shoot them down.
Today, in the 10-year long war in Afghanistan, the enemy continues to bait our medical helicopters just as they do our Special Forces troops dressed differently from their Afghan counterparts. The Taliban are smart enough to know that the helicopters with the red crosses are unarmed.
By the time Vietnam rolled around somebody decided the medics should carry a gun along with their aid bag. More important than the weapon, some leader somewhere decided to stop highlighting American medics on the front lines and removed the red crosses from the helmets and tossed the red arm bands. It took a while, but it got done for the right reasons. Okay, quick review. Old school—medics used to stand out like a sore thumb, unarmed, but expected to come to a wounded soldier’s aid. Smart school—medics are armed, dressed like every other soldier, and expected to come to a wounded soldier’s aid. Simple, right?
Then why is it that our Army MEDEVAC helicopters are still required to fly into battle with the same identifying red crosses that our grandfathers and fathers figured were stupid and removed from our ground medic’s uniforms? Why aren’t the same Army helicopters armed yet? Moreover, why are the Air Force and Marine MEDEVAC helicopters not flying with identifying red crosses but also flying with mini-guns? The answer appears to boil down to turf wars within the Army organization itself.
None of my commanders would have ever asked a medic to don a red cross on his helmet, or a red arm band, or to dress differently from everyone else. Today, most soldiers carry an individual med kit to save their own life while their mates continue the fight or secure the target. Troops are not taught to lie there in agony and simply bleed out if they still have the mental and physical capacity to stop their own bleeder with Curlex and a tourniquet.
They call it “self-aid.” If things are generally okay in the immediate area, your buddy might be able to lend a hand. Once the actual medic gets to your position, your chances of survival shoot way up. Stabilizing and prepping for transport become the priority here until the ground commander can bring in a helicopter to evacuate the casualty.
As a commander, I wouldn’t consider asking a helicopter to fly in to accept a casualty until, in my best judgment, the threat to the helicopter was mitigated.
Even dedicated ISR and gunship support can’t be 100 percent sure that there is not a threat. A single AK round or RPG rocket can take out a helo inbound and miles away from the urgent casualty.
Urban sprawls and rocky mountain ridges along the typically long flight path provide numerous hiding spots for enemy gunners just waiting for the sound of an incoming helo.
An Apache escort might be able to ruin the enemy gunner’s day, but that is reactive, and the damage to the Army MEDEVAC they are escorting might already be done.
My radio transmission might sound like this.
“You this is Me, request CASEVAC ASAP, location marked by IR strobe, over.”
“Um, uh, negative Me, please specify exactly which type of helicopter do you need. Do you need an Army MEDEVAC, or an Air Force Pedro, or a DUSTOFF, or a Marine asset, over.”
“You this is Me, whichever one can get here the fastest to save this brave American’s life, over.”
The point here is that warriors rely on speed to survive, both on the assault and after they’ve been hit. If Army policy in Afghanistan is to wait for an armed escort before the red cross-marked MEDEVAC can fly, then the answer is obvious. Remove the identifying red crosses to appease the Geneva Convention and arm the aircraft for self-defense. The enemy doesn’t care about the Geneva Conventions or any laws of land warfare.
Haven’t we at least learned that after 10 years of war?
It’s time for some courageous Army general to stand up and correct this before our current wars end and the next one starts. They might even take some recommendations from the Air Force and Marine leaders that solved this same problem years ago.
Just as some courageous general stood up, put politics aside, and removed the red arm bands and red crosses from our medics’ helmets some five decades ago, it seems a no-brainer that a current serving Army general officer do likewise.
Dalton Fury is the NYT bestselling author of Kill Bin Laden and the new, fictional Delta Force thriller, Black Site, available 01.31.12.
Article by Dalton Fury