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Air Force team provides critical care to Afghan avalanche victims

By Tech. Sgt. Jeremy Larlee , 438th Air Expeditionary Wing

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AFGHANISTAN (January 26, 2012) — A team of U.S. and Afghan air force aircrew and support personnel snapped into action Jan. 24, 2012, to provide life-saving support to 31 Afghan victims of an avalanche.

The team also supported a previous Afghan aircrew that downed their aircraft in an effort to support the victims of the avalanche in northern Afghanistan, near the city of Fayzabad.

Lt. Col. Chas Tacheny, the deputy commander of the 438 Air Expeditionary Advisory Group, was in charge of putting a team together for the mission. He said his first priority was to ensure that this mission didn’t add any more injuries to the tally of what had already taken place.

“First thing you think about in Afghanistan is the ability to survive,” he said. “You don’t want to do any more damage to your crew or equipment.”

The Portland, Ore., native said he made sure to include medical and force protection personnel in the team of people spread out among two M-17 helicopters. He also wanted to ensure that everybody was properly equipped for the area. The temperatures at the site were an arctic -15 degrees Fahrenheit.

The rescue team showed off some flexibility in performing the mission. The team was built to perform an air safety inspection of the crash site, but about an hour before arrival, they learned about the humanitarian wrinkle to the mission. Airlift of all victims would require two flights. The aircrew of the downed aircraft communicated with the rescue team to provide triage information about which victims needed to be on the first flight. They also combined forces with the local villagers to shovel out a landing zone for the rescue team.

“This aircraft recovery mission changed very quickly,” said Lt. Col. John Conmy, commander of the 438th and a Mi-17 pilot who was on the mission. “The landing zone was much smaller than we anticipated. Not too many teams could’ve pulled this off.”

Tacheny said the biggest challenge was getting to the site safely. The site was at an elevation of 9,000 feet and tucked into the difficult to traverse Hindu Kush mountain range. The Afghan crew members were an integral part of the navigation as they helped direct the pilots to the rescue site.

“The Afghans know this country and the terrain well,” said Tacheny. “They did a great job of leading us through the mountains and to where we needed to go.”

The Afghans also sent safety officers and maintenance personnel on the mission. They were eager to get a chance to pitch in to help their countrymen.

“It makes us happy to help others who are facing danger,” said Afghan air force Maj. Farid Samin. “The crews of all the aircraft worked together as a team to make this happen.”

Even with expert direction, traveling safely to the site was no easy task said Capt. Mark Morales, an instructor pilot with 438th Air Expeditionary Advisory Squadron. Morales piloted one of the three helicopters.

He said that the combination of high altitude and a small landing zone required the best efforts of everybody involved in the mission. He said landing was also complicated by the snow, which was up to five feet deep in some areas, obscuring the landing zone.

“The mission presented very challenging flight conditions, and to see our crew execute it effectively makes me extremely proud of them,” said Morales. “It was not just the aircrew though. A lot of people came together to get up the mountain and help save some people from additional suffering.”

Master Sgt. Chris Banks, a ground medic with the 438th Air Expeditionary Wing, played a vital part in the mission as well. As the sole medic, he was in charge of making sure all 31 victims of the avalanche and the aircrew of the downed Mi-17 received urgent care.

“That was probably the most intense mission I have ever worked on,” he said “When you are working with that many patients, it really gets your adrenaline running.”

During the approximately 15 minute trip back to Faizabad, the sergeant, a native of Orlando, Fla., hustled from patient to patient swapping out wet dressings for new dry ones and treating wounds as best he could. He said if the rescue mission had come any later, they may not have been able to save all of the victims.

“It was the worst case of frost bite I have ever seen in person,” he said. “I have only seen cases that severe in pictures.”

Morales, a native of San Antonio, said it was a true team effort. In addition to the Afghans providing guidance through the mountains, a German provincial reconstruction team provided timely reconnaissance pictures that provided valuable information for the mission.

“Teamwork and communication between the U.S., the Germans and the Afghans was the linchpin for this whole operation,” said Morales. Without the German intelligence, we would have been burning precious time and fuel searching for the crash site and village.

Tacheny said he regrets not being able to do a ground inspection of the downed aircraft, but he said the most important part of the mission, “saving lives,” was a success.

“The humanitarian piece of the mission was an absolute home run,” he said. “I’m extremely proud of the team. They did an admirable job.