169th Medevac: 19 soldiers return from nine months in Afghanistan
Of the hundreds they helped, it was the injured children who were the toughest to bear.
Nineteen soldiers from Fox Company of the New Hampshire Army National Guard's 169th Medevac detachment are back in the Granite State after nine months in Afghanistan. At a "Freedom Salute" ceremony held in Concord Saturday, the state's military and political leaders officially welcomed them home, praising their courage and sacrifice.
The soldiers deployed last year as part of a four-state medical evacuation unit dubbed "Jigsaw," joining National Guardsmen from New York, Pennsylvania and Missouri. The unit completed 471 missions and transported 527 wounded adults and children, soldiers and civilians.
Sgt. Chris Wareing, 23, is a flight paramedic with the 169th. A 2008 graduate of Salem High School, he had been riding on ambulances since he was a 14-year-old Explorer in his home town and had worked on civilian ambulances before.
But nothing prepared him for what he'd face in Afghanistan, where improvised explosive devices and snipers pose deadly threats to civilians and soldiers alike.
"One of the things that was so prevalent in Afghanistan was how good they got at making bombs," he said. "Their effectiveness typically made people into double, triple, even quadruple amputees in that single blast."
The first time he treated an IED victim was a shock, Wareing said. "You look down and all of a sudden, your initial reaction is, 'Where do I start? Do I start at the legs? Do I start at the head?'
"'Is he even alive?' sometimes was a really valid question."
Each UH-60 Blackhawk flew with a crew of five: two pilots, two medics and a crew chief. Sgt. 1st Class Greg Gerbig of Belmont was one of the latter.
Gerbig, a 39-year-old father of two, said his toughest mission involved an IED explosion that critically injured a 2-year-old boy. The child's uncle had been setting up a roadside bomb as children played nearby.
"It went off as he was setting it up; his nephew took shrapnel to the head."
The child didn't survive despite the best efforts of the American soldiers. Gerbig, a former Marine who had previously deployed to Bosnia and Iraq, said these are the hardest cases to deal with.
"I've seen it before in Iraq, but still, it's always tough to see little ones hurt that are innocent," he said.
In addition to maintaining the aircraft, it's the crew chief's job to make sure the crew stays safe during transport. Gerbig said it was standard operating procedure to use a metal detection wand on anyone who came on board, including patients.
And, Wareing said, "we typically didn't allow them to fly with cellphones, watches, anything they could use to time our approach into any of the hospital pads with."
He described a common enemy tactic: "They would intentionally wound either a soldier or civilian; they knew we were going to come pick them up. And they would send somebody with them who was an insurgent who would typically watch out of the window for clues and look at base security."A typical mission meant dropping into an area after a firefight, IED explosion or sniper attack. The crew usually stayed inside the aircraft as those on the ground rushed the casualties on board.
The New Hampshire soldiers were part of a brand-new Army program to start blood transfusions in the air en route to a hospital or base clinic. They saw firsthand how such efforts - they call them "vampire missions" - saved patients' lives.
"Toward the end of our tour, it was fighting season, and we were doing blood almost every other day, if not three, four times a day," Wareing said.
"We've come a long way with saving lives on the battlefield," Gerbig said.
The Army sets a standard of 15 minutes to get a medevac team off the ground; Gerbig said the Jigsaw soldiers averaged 7 minutes.
"It's a very well-established trauma rule that from the time of injury to the time you hit the door of the hospital, it has to be less than an hour for the best patient outcomes," Wareing said.
That's why the cooler carrying the blood is called a "golden hour container" or GHC (the soldiers nicknamed it a "gooch").
"It's like an expensive lunchbox," Gerbig quipped.
Wareing said one of his toughest cases involved an explosion inside a military truck. Enemy fighters had planted a radio on the side of the road, and the unit had picked it up.
"It was typical practice for them to embed explosives into things we would pick up," he said. "It went off in the troop commander's lap."
Everyone in the truck was wounded. The commander, a Marine and a Navajo from Arizona did not survive.
Wareing is engaged to another member of Fox Company, Sgt. Keri Gorsuch, 23, who grew up in Nashua. She served in flight operations on the ground.
"Even if it wasn't my turn on shift, I would follow his aircraft around the country to make sure he was safe," she said.
The guardsmen helped train their Afghan counterparts in combat and flight medicine. But trusting the locals was often difficult, they said.
A civilian hired to empty the portable toilets on base was arrested. "He was getting GPS points on his cellphone for them," Wareing said. "A guy that came into our camp and within five feet of our living quarters every single day, that we talked to every single morning and said hi to...."
"The threat was everywhere," he said.
It made for uneasy relations, even with those they served alongside."Unfortunately, when you were around Afghan police or army, I don't think anyone really trusted them because a week later, you'd hear some Afghan soldier attacked some U.S. soldiers," Gerbig said. "The same thing with the police; you'd catch the police setting up IEDs.
"You always had that in the back of your head. And I don't think it was wrong," he said. "You were basically protecting yourself and your fellow soldiers."
But when it came to the injured, all got the same high quality of care, even enemy prisoners. And despite the language barrier, Wareing said they all seemed to understand the Americans were trying to help them.
"For me, a patient is just somebody who I'm going to help," Wareing said. "It doesn't matter where they come from, what religion, what nationality, whether they're trying to hurt us or not.
"Providing medicine or care, even to soldiers that don't speak the same language as you, is a very universal sign of caring about people."
There were clear signs that combat in Afghanistan is winding down, the men said. When they arrived last year, there were about 200 bases; when they left, it was down to 40, Wareing said.
Another N.H. National Guard medevac unit, the 238th, is over there now, finishing the mission that the 169th was doing.
Asked whether the Afghans are ready to take over their country's security, Gerbig said it's difficult to know for certain.
"We heard stories of failure and success," he said. "We basically just saw the end of a firefight, but you would hear stories good and bad going on over there.''
Still, he said, "I'm glad it's ending."
The soldiers of the 169th have been home for a couple of months and are happy to be back doing their domestic duties. That includes flying helicopters to assist the Fish and Game Department on search-and-rescue missions or to carry "Bambi" buckets to dump water on forest fires.
Gerbig hasn't told his children, who are 7 and 9, a lot about what happened over there. They don't know about the horrific injuries crews had to deal with almost daily - or the time Gerbig's crew came under small-arms fire as they were trying to pick up two badly injured Afghan soldiers.
For now, his kids know all they need to, he said: "They know that I pick up people that are hurt, and I work on helicopters."