Traveling with military medics in Afghanistan

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LISA MULLINS: I'm Lisa Mullins and this is The World. A bomb hidden in a trash bin killed 12 people today in western Afghanistan. Most of the dead were Afghan police officers. Across Afghanistan violence has been on the rise as the country prepares for national elections. They're going to be in mid August. Last month was the deadliest for US and allied forces in Afghanistan since the war began. At least 42 American troops and 23 more international troops died in July � most in the volatile Helmand Province. That's in the south. Five more were killed there over this past weekend. The World's Aaron Schachter spent last week imbedded with a team of army medics working just behind the front lines in southern Helmand.

AARON SCHACHTER: Army medevac crews spend their week-long shifts at Camp Dwyer in two tents on the edge of an airfield. They mainly sleep, read, or watch movies. One soldier recently rigged a projector to his laptop so everyone could watch.


SCHACHTER: That's the movie Transformers 2 in surround sound. The medevac crews are sort of transformers themselves. When called to action in the middle of a movie or in the middle of the night they throw on their gear and race to the helicopters.

SOUND CLIP: First up, nine line, nine line, urgent patient.

SCHACHTER: A nine line is literally nine lines of information on a computer screen detailing who's hurt, what the injury is, and where the person is on a map. The medevac crews are generally in the air within about 10 minutes.

SOUND CLIP: All clear? She's clear.

SCHACHTER: In any given 24-hour period a crew might fly about three missions. But last week blew away all the statistics. The crews made several trips to one single, small command outpost in the Helmand River Valley called Sharp-Amir. In this instance a crew was called for a marine apparently shot in the back.

SOUND CLIP: What's going on?

Here you go. He's got bleeding in the left anterior globe of his eye. He's got minimal eye loss or vision loss. We put an eye patch over it. He hasn't taken anything. Here's his vitals. He's stable. He's ambulatory. He's talking. No headaches.

No shrapnel to the back?

No shrapnel to the back. His sappy plate stopped the round. Fantastic thank you.

SCHACHTER: Medic staff Sergeant Matthew Salak got lucky this time. As it turns out the initial call was wrong.

SOUND CLIP: Does anything else hurt you other than your eye?


Does anything else hurt you other than your eye?

No that's it.

I'm going to just take a quick look at your eye.


SCHACHTER: But last week in general was not a lucky one for Salak. Three of his patients died � two marines shot by Afghan snipers and an Afghan translator injured by a roadside bomb. The Medevac crews also transport Afghans caught up in the fighting or who are just sick. I went with Salak to pick up a so-called unfriendly, an Afghan shot by marines. A day later the helicopter picked up a small boy and his father. The boy had been hit by a tractor. Sergeant Mike Patangan was on that flight. He says army medics sometimes need to have even more of a bedside manner than regular doctors especially with locals.

MIKE PATANGAN: Some of them haven't been in a helicopter before so you have go tot take that into consideration because they might freak out sometimes. All you do is have someone hold their hand or something you know. It keeps me calmer when I start talking to these guys more. I tell them what I'm about to do or you know what I'm doing, what I'm checking. And it's sort of method for me as well to remember everything that I'm doing. Just go step by step.

SCHACHTER: The other thing complicating the medic's job is that they fly over hostile terrain so the pilots keep their birds, as the helicopters are known, zigging and zagging. They bob and weave across the landscape on their way to and from the landing areas known as the LZ. Jay Hanshaw is one of the medevac pilots. He says he rarely spends more than five minutes on the ground. Sometimes it's more like 30 seconds. He says it's especially dangerous leaving the landing areas because the enemy knows they're there.

JAY HANSHAW: Basically the enemy's going to know that you're going to come out of there. The direction that we choose to come out of there is not always going to be straight ahead. It'll be to the left or to the right. It just kind of keeps the enemies unaware and kind of they can't figure out our patterns. So that's why I'll bank the aircraft, I'll go around houses, I'll mass the aircraft and get the aircraft down there low and keep us out of harms way.

SCHACHTER: Hanshaw did tours in Iraq as did the medics Patangan and Salak. They say they've seen more wounded and dead in their two months in Afghanistan than during their entire time in Iraq. The Taliban have threatened even more violence in the lead up to national elections later this month. There's little doubt that the army's medevac crews will have their hands full. For The World I'm Aaron Schachter embedded with Task Force Talon, Helmand Province, Afghanistan.

MULLINS: You can see a narrated slide show of Aaron's photos at Camp Dwyer at The World dot org.