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NEWS | Aug. 31, 2006

California Air National Guard crew rescues critically wounded children in Mexico

By Capt. Alyson Teeter California National Guard

MOFFETT FEDERAL AIRFIELD, Calif. - California Air National Guard’s 129th Rescue Wing has performed a wide variety of civilian search and rescue missions, including persons aboard ships in distress, lost or injured hikers and medical evacuations.  But a recent rescue of U. S. citizens in Mexico will long be remembered.

On the morning of Aug. 3, the 129 RQW received a call from the Air Force Rescue Coordination Center based out of Langley Air Force Base, Va. The AFRCC requested the 129th provide life saving assistance for four U.S. nationals, ages four, seven, 11 and 13, who were critically injured in a car accident in Guerrero Negro, Mexico.

“We got the call from AFRCC requesting our support for the mission, and our flight doc, Dr. Kucker, assessed the children’s medical situation,” said Capt. Michael P. Wagle, 130th Rescue Squadron pilot and Search and Rescue Duty Officer for the mission. “The children were critically injured and had substandard medical care for their injuries.”

The 129th was willing and ready to accept the mission. Rescue is their business.

The primary mission of the 129th RQW is to train and be prepared to perform its wartime mission of combat search and rescue anywhere in the world. In addition to its wartime mission, the unit also works closely with the Coast Guard and various civil agencies on state missions.  They’re equipped with MC-130P Combat Shadow tankers and HH-60G Pave Hawk rescue helicopters.

While the children’s medical conditions were assessed, maintainers, pararescuemen (also known as PJs), aircrews and numerous others prepped the crew, aircraft, equipment and logistics for the time-sensitive mission.

“Each rescue is truly a wing-wide effort – every organization in the wing contributes,” said Col. Amos Bagdasarian, 129 RQW Commander. “Operating as a cohesive team during rescue missions has resulted in many successful saves.”

This mission would use the MC-130P as a transporter and ad-hoc medical clinic for the children, said Staff Sgt. Michael K. Bendle, 131st Rescue Squadron pararescueman and one of the three mission PJs. The plane was configured with litters to make beds with the goal of providing the best care and comfort for the patients’ flight.

Not only was lifesaving equipment and aircraft preparation crucial to the mission, but diplomatic clearances and airfield logistics were needed as well. The MC-130P required Mexico’s permission to enter the country’s airspace and a landing location.

“The AFRCC, embassies and other agencies worked to get us clearance in to Mexico,” Wagle said. “Before the clearance came in, we launched the aircraft and orbited the border, ready to go.”

Finding an airfield was another hurdle for the 129th. An old airfield near the hospital was discovered and deemed suitable for landing.

The MC-130P landed at the airfield and an ambulance was waiting to transport the crew to the hospital where the children were being treated. Three PJs, Senior Master Sgt. Robert E. Simmons, Staff Sgt.’s Darren M. Pon and Bendle, and the flight surgeon, Maj.  (Dr.) Joshua S. Kucker, rode the ambulances to the hospital to treat and pick-up the children.

“When the crew arrived, it turned out that only two of the four children were being treated at the hospital,”  Bendle said.  “The two other children had been banged up but were released from the hospital.”

The crew immediately began treating the children and prepared them for the rescue flight back to the United States.

“The hospital had rudimentary medical gear,” Bendle said. “There was no high-tech equipment like CAT scans or modern stuff we have here in America.”

The children were ready to be transferred from the hospital to the plane. Ambulances transported the crew, children and mother back to the airfield.

The crew quickly departed the airfield and headed back to the U.S. While the plane was airborne, the flight surgeon and PJs administered life sustaining treatment and care. They also made further assessments and planned the drop-off to the hospital staff in San Diego, Calif.

Master Sgt. Jennifer A. Johnson, 129th Operations Support Flight host aviation resource manager and ‘mission scanner,’ had an additional impact on the mission once they departed Mexico.

“I was an extra set of eyes and there to assist the crew during the mission,” she said. “When the mother boarded the plane, I was asked to help her out.”

Johnson is the mother of four boys and one girl – this fact created a common bond between her and the distraught mother, who also had four boys and one girl.

“At first my job didn’t seem that important, but when the mother was crying and holding my hand, I realized she needed the support and comfort,” Johnson said. “I was able to put myself in her shoes – the empathy gave her a bit of peace and security in a difficult situation.”

Sergeant Johnson periodically updated the mother regarding her daughter and son’s medical status during the flight. She tended to the mother’s immediate needs and became her pillar of support.

The aircraft landed an hour and a half after take-off at Naval Air Station North Island in San Diego. Ambulances, doctors, nurses and local television news stations were there waiting. The 129th crew immediately handed the children off to the medical staff.

The children and mother were transported by ambulance to the local children’s hospital. Sergeant Johnson accompanied the mother to the hospital so there was a smooth transition between one form of care to another.

“It was comforting to know that the children would be in good hands,” Sergeant Johnson said.

Sadly, the boy passed away a few days later, but being kept on life support allowed for his organs to be donated.

“It’s not very often we get this type of mission,” Bendle said. “You want to go the extra mile when the mission involves a child.”

This mission marked the 557th rescue mission for the 129th RQW since its activation in 1975.



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