By Tech Sgt. Jason Tudor, Air Force Reserve Command Public Affairs (deployed)
/ Published October 20, 2005
Kelly Field, Texas -- Nerves of steel, the patience of a saint and the ability to forego substantial eating and sleeping for days at a time. Anyone seeking a job coordinating the aeromedical evacuation of thousands after a major disaster need not apply unless they have those traits. Some dry-erase markers, a telephone, and three white boards wouldn’t hurt either.
Fortunately for the Federal Emergency Management Agency, the Defense Department and evacuees to the tune of 9,788 people, members of the Air Force Reserve Command’s 433rd Airlift Wing used all these things to run aeromedical evacuation efforts during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
Reservists commanded and controlled all aeromedical evacuation out of New Orleans. With 125 airplanes at their disposal, Citizen Airmen here were ensuring victims of Hurricane Katrina were ferried to care at points across the United States.
And when did those nerves of steel come into place? Quickly, according to Capt. James Baugh. He served as one of a handful of people inside the AE coordination cell. He said he worked on evacuation efforts in other situations, but never with an impact this close to home.
“The term ‘refugee from New Orleans’ sends chills up your spine,” he said. “It certainly added more depth to what we were doing in here.”
During a “typical” two hour and 15 minute period, Captain Baugh said they were prepping one airplane, launching another and alerting an aircrew to go. Crews readied tons of medical equipment, gallons of intravenous fluid and miles of gauze for the missions.
“It was busy,” he added.
The aeromedical evacuation effort took place in several locations, with a “total force” effort between active duty, guardsmen and reservists moving people away from danger. However, the bulk of the command and control work was done by reservists out of two Kelly hangars.
One hangar served as a staging area where medical technicians organized piles of medical equipment for later flights. Another hangar served as a patient treatment area for incoming evacuees. From New Orleans to Kelly Field, the Air Force Reserve managed the operation. On the ground, Airmen from Lackland AFB, Texas, and volunteers took over, busing people to one of 31 hospitals in the area.
Surrounded by dozens of ambulances, charter buses and news-media satellite trucks, the hangars were ground zero for evacuation efforts. Much of the heavy lifting took place from Sept. 1-3 in about 51 hours.
Inside a small office in the staging hangar, coordinators kept track of 125 military and civilian airplanes. The C-130 did the bulk of aeromedical evacuation work, bringing patients into San Antonio to 31 hospitals in the area providing help. Commercial aircraft, other military aircraft as well as C-5s from the Alamo Wing helped move evacuees away from danger.
Inside a 10-by-12 foot office, nine people crammed onto three desks. Between putting teams on airplanes, findings buses to move them and getting patients to hospitals, the office buzzed with activity from morning to night.
That’s when “the patience of a saint” came in handy. Master Sgt. Julianna Simmons deployed from March Air Reserve Base, Calif., to working in the aeromedical evacuation coordination cell. Earlier this year, Sergeant Simmons said she finished an exercise called Lifesaver ’05 on the Gulf Coast dealing with similar circumstances to Katrina. She said the stress level, however, was much higher for the real thing.
“We had one phone line, everyone calling in needing to call out. We were getting a delay in information getting missions. New Orleans was getting backed up,” the reservist said. “It was stressful, but we eventually started to get into a groove. I learned I could juggle about 100 things at once.”
One of those 100 things included planes backing up at New Orleans airport. At one time, C-130s were being sent from Kelly to New Orleans but ended up circling overhead for hours. Some eventually came home. They couldn’t land because of the number of airplanes on the ground and parked on the runway.
At the same time, the Kelly flightline burgeoned with as many as 87 different airframes – C-5s, C-17s, C-130s, 757s and more. The task saturation made the forgoing of food and sleep perhaps the easiest trait to have.
Meanwhile, reservists were cycling Reserve, Guard and active-duty aeromedical evacuation teams from Minnesota, Mississippi and Texas onto flights. Made up of medical technicians and nurses, these teams provide care to patients while in the air.
Senior Airman Winter Shaler, a flight medic and reservist from the 934th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, worked on one mission. She said the work was overwhelming.
“I think, ‘Hey that could be me.’ You empathize with them and you come together as Americans and get it done,” she said.
Fellow medical technician, squadron mate and reservist Staff Sgt. Bill Lohse agreed. The Minnesotan said he just returned from a deployment in Afghanistan. He saw similarities to that country and his New Orleans experience.
“We landed in New Orleans, looked around and it kind of looked like Afghanistan – helicopters flying around and rapid deployments. It’s different though because we’re in America. You wouldn’t think this kind of situation would happen here, but when it does, it’s nice to know we have these kind of people we can count on.”
Compounding the aeromedical evacuation were other displaced people brought in from the Crescent City. Master Sgt. Rob Kusterer, a C-5 flight engineer with the 433rd AW and coordinator for incoming evacuees to San Antonio, said some of the issues he faced were all new.
“At one point, the dogs that sniff for drugs were tiring. We had three dogs, but at one point, we were down to one,” he said. There was also the challenge of moving people who were mentally challenged and those with post-traumatic stress disorder.
“Some of these folks would get off the plane and just shut down. We couldn’t move them,” he said.
At one point, reservists accounted for 98 percent of all aeromedical evacuations. As of Sept. 7, that number waned to 80 percent. The need for further medical evacuations dramatically dropped after Sept. 4 because local medical people were able to handle most of the patients, but the global AE system remained on standby if needed, said Col. (Dr.) James Collier, AFRC surgeon general.
Throughout the span of days the Alamo Wing championed the aeromedical evacuation efforts, nerves of steel and patience paid off. Better than 2,900 people were moved to hospitals from Seattle to San Antonio. Sergeant Lohse summed up the feelings of all the reservists involved.
“It’s the greatest thing we can do – to help others like this. It’s like sitting around the fire hall. You hear the bell and you go,” he said. “This is the greatest job in the Air Force. I’m glad I’m able to help people.”