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Red Air: America’s Medevac Failure

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And so while Chazray was dying, his Dustoff medevac was sitting idly on the runway down at Kandahar Airfield.  Since there was no available Apache, the Dustoff was not cleared to depart.  The Air Force Pedros have no red crosses marking their helicopters.  Instead, they have .50-caliber machine guns.  The Pedro helicopter teams are parked right there on the same runway and they could have been dispatched, but for some extremely sorry reason the Pedros are not allowed to come into 4-4 Cav battlespace unless there is “red air.” Red air means the weather is too bad for Army helicopters to come.  From my experience Dustoffs are not averse to extreme danger, but there are conditions during which they are not allowed to fly during which Pedros will go.

And so the armed Pedros, which could have flown to us in about 13 minutes, sat on the runaway twenty-five miles away, doing nothing.  I know first-hand the skill of the Pedros having flown with them in 2009.

Specialist Chazray Clark was dying due to politics, and the Army and Air Force pilots are very angry about this.  Chazray’s is not the only such case.  Army medevac helicopters fall under the Medical Services Corps, who mark medevacs with red crosses.  Officers will tell you face-to-face that the Medical Corps does not want to give up its helicopters because senior officers want their own helicopters to shuttle them from here to there.

It is important to be absolutely clear–this is not about the Dustoff pilots and crews, who are incredibly courageous.  They have earned enormous respect.  They’ll fly into hell to get one of our wounded troopers.  This is about politics getting in the way of saving lives.

Yet despite everyone here knowing we are perpetually short on helicopters in Afghanistan, and while Pedros would have had Chazray to the hospital less than 35 minutes after the blast, Chazray lay dying.  There is no doubt in my mind—after seeing Pedros in action many times—that Chazray would have been at the trauma center in less than 35 minutes if the Pedros team had been scrambled.  Instead, it took 65 minutes for Chazray to get to the hospital.  Chazray was fully conscious when he was finally put on the bird. But he died at Kandahar Airfield.  The General in charge of this fiasco needs to be fired.

Unarmed Army medevac helicopters are not even allowed to go into certain combat areas because they may get shot up and have no way of defending themselves.  And so if the air is too dangerous due to bullets or bad weather, Air Force Pedros are sent because they fly in all weather and they shoot back with .50-caliber machine guns.

I asked Colonel Patrick Frank, the 4-4 Cav brigade commander, and Lieutenant Colonel Mike Katona, the squadron commander, if they have any discretion about which birds are called.  Can we request Pedros instead of Army Dustoff?  No.  The answer is simple, clear and ultimately disastrous: There is no discretion.

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Marking the landing zone.  Chazray is fully conscious and talking in the darkness waiting for an Apache escort.

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Finally a courageous Army Dustoff crew lands.

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Because of his proximity to the bomb blast, Sergeant Carroll was stone deaf. He was put on the bird with Chazray.

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The Apache is orbiting in the darkness.

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Chazray is loaded.

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Now loaded with the two casualties, the Dustoff medevac heads to Kandahar Airfield. The Dustoff is wheels down at the hospital approximately 65 minutes after the blast.  Specialist Chazray Clark died at the hospital while we continued the mission.

This is not the only time that medevacs have been delayed in responding to 4-4 Cav requests, or had to switch landing zones due to heavy enemy fire.  If the Pedros were dispatched they would come right in because they can shoot back.

After ten years of war, the Army has had every opportunity to fix this problem.  If the Army intended to right this wrong it would have been improved years ago.  Clearly, the Army lacks the will to address this issue.  We need courageous leadership.  This issue should be elevated to the level of the Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta, who needs to shake the Army’s political tree and fix our medevac issue before more troops die.

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We continued the mission. There was another KIA the next day from another IED.  No helicopter was called this time because the Afghan Soldier was killed instantly.  He was zipped up in a body bag and carried out that night.

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2 Comments

  1. This made my entire body cringe. I literally hurt for that incredibly brave soldier. Our brave soldiers deserve the best, not better, the best! If there is anything a single person can do, we should do it. Though it’s not timely enough for Chazray Clark, who I don’t think I’ll ever forget, I will, at the very least, call my representatives and request they address this inexcusable situation.


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