NAVAL AIR STATION OCEANA, VA. -- A Marine lies wounded on the jungle floor of a Vietnamese battlefield, an exasperated corpsman tending to his injuries. Surrounded by a green hell, they scan the horizon for the shape of a helicopter. They call again on the radio and are told to stand by. Together they wait and wait …
According to Navy Chief Petty Officer Erick M. Vazquez, chief medical representative for the 24th Marine Expeditionary Unit’s Aviation Combat Element - Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 365 (Reinforced) – helicopter’s in the Vietnam War era could take anywhere from one to three hours to reach a wounded Marine.
Today, the ACE expects to be off the ground in less than 10 minutes and, depending on their range to the objective, on the ground in 15 to 20 minutes.
“Casualties were dying,” explained Vazquez. “If we’re able to reach our casualty in time, we’re able to save more than 98 percent of those who might otherwise die, and we’re still continuing to improve.”
In the worst of all scenarios – a downed Marine – pilots, crew chiefs and corpsmen pursue their mission with a sense of urgency, sprinting from the hangar to the helicopter and deploying to the wounded within minutes of receiving the call.
“Fast is smooth and smooth is fast,” said Capt. Marcia L. Sandrew, HMM-365’s administration officer and a CH-46E Sea Knight pilot. “Time is of the essence. You want to do it the right way the first time. You don‘t want to be rushing or running out and tripping on stuff.”
“Every second counts and you only get one shot to do it right,” added Cpl. Jeff T. McCarstle, a squadron crew chief. “This is probably the most important mission that we do. This is varsity level flying, and you better bring your ‘A’game.”
During the 24th MEU’s Training in an Urban Environment Exercise in Norfolk, Va., the ACE is constantly practicing and perfecting its casualty evacuations or CASEVAC techniques.
The training includes flying simulated missions requiring the crew to extract wounded Marines from a number of local landing zones and delivering them to nearby medical facilities for extended care.
“The more that you practice, the better you get and the faster you’ll be able to launch,” said Sandrew. “The key is remaining calm and executing the flight as quickly as possible without rushing. You don’t want to start doing things with haste – you need to remain focused.”
CASEVAC corpsmen work to bridge the gap between the care the corpsman on the ground gives to the wounded and the care they’ll eventually receive, said Vazquez. The corpsman on the ground stabilizes the injuries; the CASEVAC corpsman continues to stabilize and keeps them alive in transit.
“They’ll be monitoring vitals every minute and maximizing their resources,” said Vazquez. “Corpsmen are well trained and will do whatever they must to keep them alive until they make contact.”
“They count on us to do our job to the point where they know we’re coming,” said McCarstle. “If you fail to do it, someone dies. There’s a whole lot on the line.”
CASEVAC missions put a great deal of stress on pilots, crew chiefs and corpsmen who are on constant call in the event of an incident, said Sandrew. However, if they are able to extract a wounded Marine from the battlefield within moments of their being wounded, that Marine will most likely live to fight another day because of the aircraft crew and corpsmen’s training and dedication to duty.
“Never doubt the skills of the corpsmen,” added Vazquez. “We’ve always been here for the Marines and we will always be here for the Marines.”