Anatomy of a Medevac

  • Share
  • Read Later
When Zach Talraas saw a white van with flashing red lights barreling toward his Humvee, he held fire. A gentle press of his thumb on the red rubber trigger of his Mark 19 automatic grenade launcher could have incinerated the incoming vehicle. But the 20 year-old army private held off. "Emergency vehicles," he says, "are supposed to be exempt."

Then his convoy started taking fire from the direction of the van, and Talraas was hit in the leg. "It felt like something had snapped my bone in half," says the young soldier from his hospital bed at Tallil Air Base in south eastern Iraq.

Talraas, a new gunner in the Army's 82nd Airborne, had fired his first shot in combat a day earlier. After what felt like endless weeks waiting in a secure area at the Kuwait City International Airport, Talraas's company flew into Iraq on an HC-130 and landed at the newly captured airbase near Nasiriyah, before heading northwest on the road to Baghdad

When a Toyota truck heading toward the convoy didn't stop for Talraas' raised hand, he put a few 40mm high explosive rounds from his Mark 19 across the vehicle's path. "It was just a warning shot," says the DesMoines, Iowa native. "But with all the reports of Iraqi suicide bombers and Fedayeen fighters dressing in farmer's clothes, we were being careful."

The company spent that first night camped on the southeastern outskirts of Samawah, an ancient mud-brick city built over an elbow of the Euphrates River. At 3am on Monday, they got the order to move through the town and secure two bridges. The first thing Talraas noticed as dawn broke were the palm trees and lush green fields. "It almost reminded me of an old Vietnam movie," he says. "We came into the desert, but this was very, very green."

Before reaching the first bridge, the convoy was taking small arms fire from across the river when a "technical" vehicle, a civilian truck with a machine gun mounted on the back came careening toward them. They "lit it up" and secured the bridge.

Things had seemed to be going well that morning, but Samawah put Talraas on edge. A sniper could easily hide in its narrow alleyways and tall, closely spaced mud-brick buildings. "My nerves were up," says Talraas. "We don't train for that environment, with buildings so close together and that high."

Approaching the second bridge, the company was hit by mortar fire and rocket propelled grenades. "My eyes were working overtime," said Talraas, "trying to figure out where the fire was coming from." Then a turquoise dump truck with a bright orange Mercedes symbol on it started heading toward them along the river. Talraas could see more "technicals" moving across the bridge about a thousand meters off to the left. That's when the white van appeared, its red lights flashing. After they were shot at, Talraas' driver, Sergeant Michael Maita, hit the gas and sped back to the southeastern corner of the town. Maita had been shot in the hand. "But," said Talraas, "he kept his wits about him and they got out of there," Maita shouting "Medic! Medic!" as they tore back to safety.

At Tallil Air Base 55 miles southeast, Sergeant Henry Barbe was fast asleep. Barbe is an Army "DUSTOFF" medic (an acronym for "Dedicated, Unhesitating Support to Our Fighting Forces"), part of the corps whose medical evacuation helicopters fly in to pick up their injured comrades in danger zones. And because their helicopters are marked with the red cross, the Geneva Convention forbids them from carrying offensive weapons. They are armed with nothing more than four 9mm pistols and one M16 rifle.

Responding to Maita's call, the 29 year-old Barbe jumped from his cot, donned his flight suit, boots, flak vest and chest plate, strapped on his 9mm pistol and survival vest, and stepped into his monkey harness — the safety strap that allows him to move around in the open-air back of a speeding helicopter.

Soon he was airborne in a Black Hawk screaming toward Samawah at 140 knots. Nearing the town, Barbe saw the secured landing area — a circle of Humvees and Bradley tanks, guns pointed out, a smoke grenade billowed up giving the all-clear for the pilot to set the helicopter down.

Barbe had been told to expect one walking wounded, but as soon as the DUSTOFFS hit the ground, the waiting company brought out Maita, Talraas and a paratrooper who had been shot in the right kidney. But that wasn't Barbe's only surprise that morning. He knew these guys; this was his old brigade. The soldier with the gut wound was a friend of his, and was rapidly losing consciousness.

"We got there just in Time," says Barbe, "The guy was ice cold."

As the Black Hawk tore back to the hospital at Tallil, Maita and Talraas were stable and Barbe focused on squeezing bags of saline into the dying soldier's jugular vein. To keep him from slipping into a coma, Barbe was grabbing handfuls of the patient's eyebrow hair ripping it out, and rubbing his knuckles into his sternum. Anything painful to get a response. Every few minutes the bleeding paratrooper would pick up his head, smile weakly and give a thumbs up. He was still with them.

When the DUSTOFFS touched down at the Tallil Army Combat Hospital 20 minutes later, the surgery ward was prepped and ready. The wounded paratrooper was wheeled straight onto the operating table, and the surgeons were in and out in an hour and a half.

Surgeon Major Mark Harris picks up the story: "It's a miracle that the soldier with the gut wound got to the hospital alive. If the medic hadn't arrived when he did, the guy would have perished within minutes."

As of Wednesday, the paratrooper, whose name cannot be released until his family is notified of his injury, was still alive, although still seriously ill. The doctors at the Tallil hospital estimate that his chances of survival are now over 50 percent. Young Private Talraas is happy to be alive, but is anxious to get back to his brothers on the front line.

He proudly shows off the mangled 7.62mm AK-47 shell the surgeons pulled from his right leg. The medic Barbe, however, is troubled by the news that an ambulance might have opened fire on his fellow soldiers. The rules of war don't seem to apply in Iraq. "That red cross is the only protection we got," says Barbe, "and they clearly don't care about that."