CAMP BONDSTEEEL, Kosovo –
When the term MedEvac is mentioned, the thought of injured Soldiers being carried by stretcher and loaded onto Black Hawk helicopters is often the first thought to come to mind. However, a much different story recently played for one Kosovo Force aircrew who was called out to the rugged landscape of Albania’s northern mountain range.
It began as a typical, quiet Saturday morning at Camp Bondsteel, Kosovo, for the on-call MedEvac crew of Detachment 2, Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 169th Aviation Regiment, Virginia National Guard. That is until a call came in notifying them of a potential MedEvac request from an unlikely source.
“At about 12 o'clock, I got a call from our battalion commander, and he just kind of gave me a heads up and said, ‘hey, you know, be prepared, there might be a MedEvac (request) coming through,’” explained Capt. Christopher Jackson, operations officer with 2nd Bn., 224th Avn. Reg. “I went ahead and called our MedEvac, let them know a MedEvac (request might) come through, that way they can get their crews pulled up and get them ready.”
The initiating incident occurred earlier that morning, on May 28, 2022, when two Albanian State Police officers were injured when their vehicle rolled down a cliff.
Due to the remote location of the incident and the specialized equipment necessary to extract the injured officers, Albanian officials sent a request for aid to KFOR, who in turn tasked Regional Command East with the vital life-saving mission.
RC-East passed the mission down to the aviation team of Task Force Pegasus, where coordination for the MedEvac began.
Initial information received by Jackson stated the incident in Albania included “two Albanian police officers; where one was critically injured and unconscious, (and) another one was noncritical, but also injured,” he said. “They were doing some sort of operation, got in a vehicle accident, rolled down the cliff and were injured. They needed a hoist and a ventilator, which hoist (operations) is something our MedEvac trains with all the time, but never actually done as a real mission.”
Upon receiving notification the request would be coming through, the on-call MedEvac team with 1st Bn., 169 Avn. Reg., call sign Samaritan 17, began loading the necessary equipment, developing an action plan, and started spinning up their UH-60 Black Hawk helicopter.
“You always prepare for what's going to happen; you play through that in your mind,” said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Brady Lemmon, the team’s pilot in command. “It's happened before, but this was my first time I've ever done that and to be able to execute it at the level that we did, I’m very proud of that.”
When asked what he thought about conducting a MedEvac in Albania, Lemmon said “that it didn’t matter. We had a grid coordinate; we had people to help. It could have been anywhere.”
In addition to Lemmon, Samaritan 17 included Chief Warrant Officer 2 William Von Hemert, pilot; Sgt. Christopher Buchanan, crew chief; Staff Sgt. Nathaniel Moore, medic; and Sgt. Ashley Camper, medic.
Before departing Camp Bondsteel, the Samaritan 17 crew had a good understanding of what they were flying into, thanks to the information they received from the 9-line MedEvac request. A 9-line is a military system used to relay information about the location, severity of injuries, specialized equipment needed, and more, so MedEvac crews are as prepared as possible when responding to an incident.
However, the information they had on hand couldn’t prepare them for everything they would encounter when they arrived on the scene.
“We heard (they were) in a gorge, but we didn't realize that there was going to be 800-meter cliff bases all around us and have to be in such a tight area,” Von Hemert said. “And that's kind of the nature of MedEvac. We train that when we get on scene, we assess everything from winds, terrain, ingress and egress procedures. But it's just something in the nature of MedEvac is that you're never going to know exactly until you get there.”
In order to safely evacuate the injured patients, the MedEvac team had to use a hoist system to lower Moore into the gorge so he could safely evaluate the patients, connect them to the hoist, and raise them into the helicopter. Something Moore has trained on extensively.
“Going down I was thinking I want to get down safely and I was very thankful when I did get down and immediately thought to myself, ‘let’s go assess these patients and figure out the best way to get them up,’” Moore said. The priority was getting “the patient stable to fly, packaged safely and get them (evacuated).”
Due to the distance Samaritan 17 had to fly and the amount of fuel they would use circling the area while Moore prepared the patients for evacuation, the crew was unsure if they would need to evacuate the more critical patient first before returning for the second patient after refueling. Luckily, due to the speed and efficiency of their actions, Samaritan 17 was able to safely evacuate both patients simultaneously and deliver them to an Albanian military hospital together.
“When we arrived at the hospital, it was a good handoff,” Camper said. “They were surrounded by the amount of resources they needed to optimize their outcome. With them being able to get a hoist rescue, being able to get critical care in the aircraft, and being able to get right into the hospital's arms, they had the maximum amount of care they could receive every step of the way, especially for how austere of an environment and the injuries they suffered out there.”
In order to assist with the handoff at the hospital, Moore and Camper stayed behind while the rest of Samaritan 17 departed to refuel, ensuring a smooth transition of the patients to the medical staff.
“One of the nice things about medicine is, when you look at all of your damage control, resuscitation, trauma algorithms, they're pretty universal,” Camper said. “When we arrived at the hospital, it was a good handoff because they were expecting us. When we got there, the doc was there, the nurse staff was there, (and) the trauma bay team was ready to receive. Everyone was certainly ready.”
The mission's success has been attributed to the training and experience of the Samaritan 17 crew. Additionally, Lemmon said the team dynamic, their communication, and how well they work together ultimately allowed for the safe extraction and evacuation of their patients.
“This success was (because) we all work together as a team, we all trained with what we were going to do,” he said. “There were things we trained on that we realized weren’t working out right. We all recognized it and adjusted it on the fly. I don't know if we could work together any better than we did.”
“I've been doing this a long time, I've worked with a lot of organizations, and this is probably the best we've ever had,” Lemmon added. “This was the best I’ve ever seen. It was really amazing.”