SACRAMENTO, Calif. - During a nine-month tour in Afghanistan, more than 100 Army National Guard Soldiers from California, Nevada and Washington with Charlie Company, 1-168th General Support Aviation Battalion (GSAB) worked together to provide aerial medical evacuation support to all of Regional Command (RC) West and Southwest.
The team logged more than 3,000 flight hours, 683 medevac missions and transported 730 patients.
Following similar deployments in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in 2002 and 2008, this tour marked the third rotation in which these Citizen-Soldiers from across the American West were out kicking up dust and saving lives across Afghanistan. Their historic performance under fire during past deployments set a new standard for Army medevac units and changed the way the entire community trains to deploy.
"The thing that I'm most proud of [on this deployment] is the fact that we brought three states together and pulled everybody into one team," said California Army National Guard (CAARNG) Maj. David Lovett, commander of Charlie Company, 1-168th GSAB. "In true National Guard fashion, we made it happen."
Perfecting the Cal-Nev-Wash trifecta
Composed respectively of six aircraft and crews from California, six from Nevada and three from Washington, the unit made the decision early on to dissolve any state lines.
"From day one, we mixed all three states as a combined joint effort," said Lovett. "There were elements from all three states in the key positions. We completely mixed and matched to ensure we were the strongest we could be, everywhere we went."
Many of the unit's Soldiers had experienced multi-state deployments in the past and were enthusiastic about the cultural decision to structure the company based on performance and merit versus state integrity.
"It all goes back to last deployment … we went out with three very strong states … California, Nevada and Wyoming and they were able to stay pretty much state-centric. From my point of view, that was not the best way to go out the door," said 1st Sgt. Wayne Loader, a Nevada Army National Guard member who has been with the company since 2008 and served as the company first sergeant throughout the deployment. "So when we got word on the next deployment we started bringing all of our detachments together to train, almost two years out."
Charlie Company's Washington detachment was the newest addition to the company, as a result of a new Army mandate to increase medevac companies from 12 to 15 Black Hawks. Formed in late 2011 and nearly fully manned and equipped by mid 2012, the detachment had just one year to ready itself for action overseas.
"Especially with Washington getting thrown into the mix as a brand new unit, we needed to spread the wealth," said Loader. "We didn't want our Soldiers worrying about where they're from, but focused on where the unit is going together."
Washington Army National Guard Maj. Tyler Ranney was selected to serve as the detachment's commander. With his active duty experience as an Army medical officer and his Guard training as a Black Hawk pilot, he led the unit in its evolution from simply being an idea on paper to becoming a combat effective medevac element.
"Coming into this, we had no [real-world] experience deploying as a detachment and so we came in with fresh eyes, looking for what right looked like," Ranney said.
Ranney said from the start he had faith in his people and their abilities as pilots, aircrew and medics, and that only increased as they gelled with the other states and exchanged training throughout the deployment.
Since its initial formation, the Washington detachment's sole focus was on readying for the mission overseas, so upon its return Ranney was eager to offer their combat proven capability to their home state.
"We're ready to stand alone," said Ranney. "With all of the experience, expertise and tools we bring to the table, I'm excited to see how we're going to integrate ourselves into the civilian emergency response and search and rescue arena here at home."
Setting the "DUSTOFF" standard
Charlie Company prides itself in providing "Dedicated Unwavering Service to Our Fighting Forces," or DUSTOFF. Since the Vietnam War when helicopters were first deployed on medevac missions, DUSTOFF has been the call sign that comes across the radio waves when troops need aeromedical rescue in the midst of combat.
"We're aware of all those troops before us that helped to develop the program and all the sacrifices and efforts they made," said California Army National Guard member Sgt. 1st Class Kelly Hughes, a team sergeant with Charlie Company who has been on every deployment with the unit since he joined its ranks in 1997. "We are the result of a long legacy and tradition that we're proud to carry forward."
This deployment, Charlie Company was broken up into small teams and emplaced on forward operating bases throughout RC West and Southwest, picking up and pulling back as the countryside was handed over to Afghan forces. Within the first month of being on the ground, this time Charlie Company experienced some of its toughest rescues of the deployment.
"There was a stretch of two days where we had a couple aircraft get shot up by enemy fire going into hot [landing zones] to pick up wounded. It was early on, so I was like, whoa, this is going to be more challenging than I thought," said Lovett, who served as a platoon leader during the unit's 2008 OEF deployment when their Black Hawks dodged a near daily dose of hot steel. "Fortunately for us, though we faced enemy fire sporadically; we didn't have any aircraft damaged for the rest of the deployment."
Each time Charlie has deployed to Afghanistan the variables have been different, but the heart of the mission has remained the same.
"Our typical launch time was six minutes [from the initial call for help]," said Hughes. "The coverage we provide is a combat multiplier. Before the units we were stationed alongside would roll out on their missions, they would stop by and check out with us. Knowing we were there for them gave them a great since of confidence."
During Charlie's 2002 deployment they recognized the need for greater emphasis on in flight medical care, so they set about making change. When they returned to Afghanistan in 2008 on the eve of the surge they brought with them a level of expertise and experience that far exceeded the active Army standard.
An extensive study later found that Charlie Company was able to keep 66 percent more of its patients alive when compared side-by-side to their active duty medevac counterparts.
The difference: each of Charlie Company's flight medics was a paramedic versus the baseline emergency medical technician (EMT) certification that was the Army standard at the time.
Soon after, the Army charted a course to raise the standard for the entire medevac community, a change that took effect with a new level of schooling for medevac flight medics in 2012.
Ever focused on saving more lives on the battlefield, this time around Charlie Company raised the bar again.
"This go-around we maintained that high level of medical expertise with our paramedics, but on top of that we brought along our own physician's assistant (PA)," Lovett said . "We pursued a waiver through [the National Guard Bureau] to leverage someone who was already an Army PA and worked full time as a civilian PA in an emergency room, to further enhance our life saving capabilities. We were the first medevac company to ever do that."
The unit brought a huge capability to the fight that only a National Guard unit can. The medics in active duty units can't compete, said Lovett. It's nearly impossible to simulate the day-to-day real-world experience that Guard Soldiers pick up working their full-time jobs as first responders out in the community.
That breadth and depth of hands-on medical experience is only one aspect of what set Charlie apart.
Charlie Company's pilots and crew also brought a unique cache of experience over from the search and rescue and wildfire fighting hoist missions they execute in the high altitude, rugged and mountainous terrain of their home states; real-world mission experience their active duty counterparts rarely have access to outside of a combat zone.
Another secret to Charlie Company's success is recognizing and grooming talent from a young age.
California Army National Guard Sgt. Cody Weaver joined the unit right out of basic training in 2005. He was an aircraft mechanic and served in that capacity during the unit's 2008 OEF tour. On this last rotation he deployed as a crew chief, and interacting directly with those they rescued left a mark on him.
"Some of these people we rescue are critically wounded and we are quite literally saving their lives," said Weaver. "They'll reach out to us or come find us, sometimes with tears in their eyes, and thank you for saving their life. It's really gratifying to hear that."
Weaver now has his sights set on commissioning as a warrant officer, with hopes that the next time Charlie Company answers the call overseas he'll be in the cockpit.
"I really enjoy the mission and the people that I work with," said Weaver. "For me there is no greater calling."