Tech. Sgt. Larry Jones took a shot for the team Thursday, lying on the cold metal floor of a C-17 Globemaster III soaring miles above Eastern Washington while a fellow medic practiced inserting needles in his arm.
“That’s one for the new guys,” said Jones, 27, who came home in January from a four-month Afghanistan deployment with the 446th Reserve Airlift Wing.
The Bremerton man joined about 10 reserve airmen on in-flight exercises this week out of Joint Base Lewis-McChord, helping them get the feel for delivering medical care in the air.
They were a mixed group of seasoned veterans and greener airmen who have mostly served on domestic missions.
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They’re linked by an assignment with the airlift wing’s 446th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron. Their job is to keep wounded service members alive on long flights from war zones to hospitals in Germany and the United States.
It’s a mission that the airmen call one of the most fulfilling assignments in the military.
“I just like taking care of people. I like knowing that when they get on my plane, they’re going home,” Jones said.
The Lewis-McChord squadron and its counterparts in the Air Force’s other medical evacuation unit have a 98 percent success rate in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. All told, they’ve brought home some 160,000 service members since 2003, according to the Air Force.
The squadron’s exercises this week were intended to keep the airmen sharp. Reservists in the unit can be called up for four-month missions to the Middle East, or shorter assignments for humanitarian crises or natural disasters.
They began the day by setting up a hospital room in the C-17, lifting stretchers into racks that fit in the plane’s bay and attaching medical equipment to each station. Oxygen masks, fire extinguishers, machines to read vital signs, bags of intravenous solutions and bandages each had a place.
“This is exactly how it is,” said Senior Airman Benjamin Heder, 24, of Provo, Utah. “When it all hits the fan, we’ll be ready for it.”
He’s been in the Air Force for a little more than a year and he’s awaiting his first overseas deployment. He was the airman pushing a needle into Jones’ arm while the plane cruised.
Others looked forward to the scheduled “emergencies” in Thursday’s flight. They ran through drills demonstrating what they do if a fire broke out on the plane, or if they lost oxygen.
“There’s really no such thing as an ordinary mission,” Jones said.
He was based at Bagram Airfield in Afghanistan for his most recent deployment. The care he helped deliver ranged from soldiers injured in sports-related accidents to soldiers wounded by bomb explosions. He said the pace was more demanding than a 2008 deployment he served in Iraq.
Maj. Lorie O’Daniel enjoys her work with the 446th so much that she typically volunteers to go overseas every year, temporarily leaving her regular job as a nurse at the Veterans Affairs hospital in Seattle.
She hasn’t lost a wounded service member in flight, but some were hurt so badly she knew they wouldn’t survive long after landing at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.
“I’ve had people that got to Germany, and given that they were so injured, that was the one thing you could do for them,” O’Daniel said.
Sometimes, she’d call the hospital afterward to check on the wounded soldier or Marine.
“I love this job,” she said. “I love this mission.”
Adam Ashton: 253-597-8646