Lifesavers come home from Afghanistan

MOFFETT FEDERAL AIRFIELD, Calif. -- Relieved families, friends and co-workers, patriots on motorcycles, local firefighters and media surrounded the group of rescuers as the arrived here from a four-month deployment Sept. 9.

It was a welcome sight as the 129th Rescue Wing Airmen returned home from an intense combat deployment to Afghanistan where they rescued 187 injured people, including coalition forces, local nationals and sister service members.

In May nearly 70 members of the 129th RQW began their incredible journey of saving lives in southern Afghanistan. HH-60G Pave Hawk helicopter crew members, maintainers and support personnel from the 129th provided 24-hour rescue alert at Kandahar Airfield and Camp Bastion in the Helmand province.

Half of the 129th Expeditionary Rescue Squadron was comprised of Airmen from the 129th RQW based here, but also included personnel from active duty and reserve units from around the world, including rescue squadrons from Moody Air Force Base, Ga., Kadena Air Base, Japan, and Nellis AFB, Nev.

During the deployment the 129th ERQS was in charge of battlefield combat medical evacuation, or medevac, of all joint, coalition, and Afghan National forces operating within Regional Command South, Afghanistan, according to Lt. Col. Rhys Hunt, commander of the 129th ERQS and the 129th Rescue Squadron's director of operations. The 129th ERQS also routinely provided time critical lifesaving medical attention to Afghan citizens who were either wounded by enemy fighters or simply injured in everyday incidents.

This rescue task - personnel recovery - differed from traditional past missions. Instead of being on alert to save downed U.S. Air Force pilots, the 129th ERQS was responsible for saving whoever needed immediate medical attention.

The 129th was split between two locations - Kandahar Airfield and Camp Bastion. Stationed closer to the combat zones, the unit improved its response time to meet the Secretary of Defense's mandate to recover critically injured patients from anywhere on the battlefield in less than one hour, which is known as "the golden hour."

The 129th shared medevac alert at Kandahar Airfield with the 82nd Combat Aviation Regiment based out of Fort Bragg, N.C. "We got everything from high-priority combat casualties, such as IED blasts, troops-in-contact, and gunshot wounds, to routine transfers between medical facilities," Colonel Hunt said.

At Camp Bastion, the unit was paired with the British Joint Helicopter Force-Afghanistan and its CH-47 Chinook airborne surgical team.

"The guys out there were doing four to eight missions per day at Camp Bastion, and to say the conditions are austere is an understatement," Colonel Hunt said. "Temps routinely hit 115 degrees with less than one mile visibility due to the dust."

"We were closely tied to the fight there and worked particularly well extracting wounded UK soldiers from the high-threat Green Zone," he added.

Speedy and efficient maintenance on the Pave Hawks at both locations was also critical to saving lives, according to Capt. Michael Vandermeyden, maintenance supervisor for the 129th ERQS and commander of the 129th Maintenance Operations Flight. He managed the HH-60G maintenance at both Kandahar and Camp Bastion.

"The key to our success was teamwork because we were on alert around the clock and had to launch aircraft within 30 minutes," Captain Vandermeyden said. "Ops would communicate a potential mission to maintenance, which would kick the alert crews out to the aircraft to start the launch process. This allowed ops to run and jump into the aircraft, and go."

"We set the standard for launching aircraft early," he said. "A quicker launch saved people's lives."

The maintainers faced many hurdles in keeping the aircraft flying. "Browning out" was a common occurrence that happens when the helicopter lands and sand and dirt envelope the aircraft. The engines would suck in the dirt and consequently trigger engine problems.

"At one point in July our maintenance team changed four engines in a week - three in 36 hours," Colonel Hunt said. "I was impressed with their level of motivation in such arduous conditions."

Although the members of the 129th ERQS faced risks and challenges on a daily basis, the team united to perform their honorable mission successfully and come home safe without any casualties.

"We have enough stories of heinous brownouts, IED strikes, bullet holes, and Soldiers that lived to fight another day, to last a lifetime," Colonel Hunt said. "I don't mean to overstate this, but this deployment has been unlike any that I have experienced in my 15 years as a rescue pilot."