Assignment Afghanistan: Emergency room in the sky

Posted on: 8:54 pm, February 11, 2013, by , updated on: 10:02pm, February 11, 2013

BAGRAM, Afghanistan — We’re taking off from a well-worn runway, half a world away from home, at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan.

At the controls of this behemoth Air Force C-130 cargo plane, a cockpit crew that’s cool and calm, considering what we’re soon flying over: one of the most dangerous spots on the globe.

Down below, in the shadow of the towering Hindu Kush mountains, amid the mud huts and dusty villages, is the battleground of the longest war the US has ever fought.

And we’re hopscotching this hostile territory – by air – with some familiar faces from back home in Colorado.  A flight crew that sees the trauma of the war on terror first hand, daily.

“We’re gonna take care of whoever needs to be taken care of,” says Captain Deanna Leyba.  Back home, in her regular life, she’s an orthopedic nurse and mother of three from Colorado Springs.

But here in Afghanistan, her emergency room is the cramped fuselage of a cargo plane, with stretchers dangling from the ceiling.  It’s an air ambulance, flown into some of the most hazardous hotspots in the country.

Captain Leyba and a group of other reservists from the 34th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron based at Peterson Air Force Base in Colorado Springs are deployed to Afghanistan with the difficult assignment of retrieving the war wounded (victims of IED blasts and other injuries) and stabilizing and treating them in mid-air, en route to better equipped hospitals in Germany and back home in the US.

“We see double amputees, we see brain injuries, we see eye injuries, we see, I mean, they’re just really hurt,” said Senior Airman Erin Smith.

She’s from Parker, Colorado, a student at CU-Denver studying nursing. But on this day, she’s on the runway in Jalalabad, treating a soldier with an ankle injury.

While she checks his vitals, we lift off again, lumbering toward another outpost and even more wounded soldiers.

All the while, the crew aboard this plane is aware of the hazards they too could face.  These planes have been known to have close calls with rockets and bombs and small arms fire themselves.  At a couple of the stops, the crew must wear helmets and bullet proof vests, because the danger on the ground is too great.

At Forward Operating Base Shank, a tiny outpost near the Pakistan border, armed guards protect the flight crew as they load up the most serious casualties yet – two soldiers from the Afghan army – who’ve suffered massive internal injuries in a rollover accident.

“And they are critical patients they’ve got trauma injuries,” says Senior Airman Samantha Gonzalez.

One of the men has internal bleeding. He’s hooked to a breathing tube. There’s some fear he won’t make it. Both soldiers are in bad shape, given constant care mid-flight, just in case something goes wrong.

“I think the hardest thing is just the pain, and managing the pain,” says Smith.

Any doctor or nurse will tell you there’s a special feeling that comes from helping the people who need it most. But for this Colorado crew, the feeling is amplified, considering who the majority of their patients are.

“It’s very humbling to be taking care of our guys who have sacrificed everything for our country and our nation’s people, and now I can give back to them,” said First Lt. Ann Barnes. “I can make sure that they get home… and that’s really important.”

And speaking of home, that’s where Barnes can’t wait to go.

“I have three kids at home, so I’m anxious to get home,” she said.

It is constantly on the mind of these crew members. Though the snow-capped terrain of Afghanistan often reminds them of Colorado, it can hardly erase the reality of what they deal with every day.  And it’s no substitute for what awaits some 7,000 miles away when their deployment ends.

“I’m very ready to go back home. I miss my husband and my kids,” said Captain Leyba.  “But as far as the experience, I wouldn’t trade it for anything.”

Coming up tomorrow night: We meet the victim of an IED blast, and the Colorado nurse who is tending to his wounds at one of the most advanced military hospitals in the world.  Join us Tuesday night on FOX 31 Denver News at Nine for Home From War: Assignment Afghanistan.