Tuesday, October 6, 2009

Who Fights This War? -- MEDEVAC Pilot

This story ran in my newsletter yesterday and today 34th division published it in their newsletter and on their web site. I am posting it on my blog also because I really like the story.

Maj. Anthony Meador is near the end of his third tour Iraq as an Army aviator. He served in Baghdad in 2004 and at Joint Base Balad in 2007. He now commands Company C, 1st Battalion, 52nd Aviation Regiment, a Wainwright, Alaska, based Army unit currently attached to 2nd Battalion, 104th Aviation Regiment, 28th Combat Aviation Brigade.

During his first tour Meador served as a MEDEVAC pilot during some of the most intense fighting in the war. "We were slammed in 2004 and in April things got really bad," he said. "One night we evacuated 44 soldiers in two and a half hours on six Black Hawks. We had burns, gunshot wounds, shrapnel wounds…the 2/5 Cavalry got ambushed in Baghdad's Sadr City neighborhood. The whole year was non-stop for all of us."

Meador returned home in 2005 to his wife and his first baby boy, who is now five. He had almost two years of stateside duty before returning to Iraq with the surge of troops in 2007. "I was executive officer of a (General Support Aviation Battalion) based in Balad so I flew every kind of aircraft we had," said Meador. "With the surge, the operating tempo was high. Part of our mission was flying General (David) Petraeus, General (Raymond) Odierno and Ambassador (Ryan) Crocker."

His first two tours were filled with high-intensity, around-the-clock operations, but the weather was great. "In Baghdad and Balad the weather was not an issue. It was sunny all the time, no dust storms,” Meador said. At Contingency Operating Base Adder in 2009, the intensity of operations is often lower, but "the weather shapes every aspect of our mission planning: weather here, weather at the destination, weather along the route. We are constantly updating our planning based on the weather."

Difficult weather forces tough decisions with MEDEVAC flights. One of the toughest decisions for Meador on this tour was whether to fly on July 2. A call came in from the Adder emergency room. A patient with a pulmonary embolism needed immediate transport to Balad for a type of surgery not available here. Charlie Company would fly the patient to Al Kut and transfer him to a waiting medevac helicopter for transport to Balad.

The first segment of the flight was just 300 meters from the Charlie hangars to the COB Adder emergency room, but that flight was enough for Meador to reconsider the wisdom of flying with visibility less than a half mile in a huge dust storm. According to Meador, winds were 30 knots with gusts up to 45 knots. Vertical visibility was 125 feet. To further complicate the flight plan, the patient's condition meant they had to fly close to the ground, as pulmonary embolisms are aggravated by altitude.

Maj. Anthony Meador, a MEDEVAC pilot in Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 52nd Aviation Regiment, Task Force Keystone, inspects the tail rotor of a Black Hawk helicopter. Meador is wrapping up his third tour in Iraq. (U.S. Army photo by Sgt. Neil Gussman)
"We had to stay extremely low anyway because visibility was worse at 1000 feet. But flying at 50 to 75 feet with power lines and towers is very difficult," Meador said.

As they flew from the hangar to the clinic, he said, "We're going to have another conversation with the physician. I am about 60 to 70 percent sure we are going to cancel this mission.”

Staff Sgt. Jason Jones, a flight medic, talked to the physician on duty. The clot was moving toward the patient's lungs and heart and he would die without surgery at Balad. When Jones confirmed the patient's prognosis, Meador decided to go ahead with the mission. "When you get a patient on board, you're committed," he said. "Once you leave the airfield with a patient on board you’re committed to the entire mission."

"The trip to Al Kut is usually 43 minutes," said Meador. "We flew low and slow for an hour and 20 minutes. The chase bird was at our altitude, flanked right and about 10 rotor disks behind us." Meador explained that ten rotor disks, approximately 100 yards, is much closer than the normal following distance of 30 to 40 rotor disks, but necessary because of the low visibility. "We were coordinating moment to moment throughout the entire flight. When one of us would pick up a power line or a tower, we would advise the other right away."

Eighty minutes after takeoff, they landed safely and transferred the patient to a waiting MEDEVAC helicopter for transport to the Balad medical facility. They refueled and returned to COB Adder. The patient arrived at Balad in time and got the surgery he needed.

Meador has served 14 years as an Army Medical Service officer. He is a 1995 graduate of Virginia Military Institute. He and his wife Margaret have two boys, ages three and five. Meador calls Galax, Va., home and is currently assigned to Fort Wainwright, Alaska, where he will return after his current tour of duty.

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