Editor’s note: Reporter Matt Sanchez, currently embedding with military units throughout both Iraq and Afghanistan, has been providing WND readers with a glimpse into the Iraq war most Americans have never seen.
Embedding with the quick reaction force – QRF – was like drawing straws and hoping something would happen on the long 24-hour shifts.
I was with the “C” Company 7th Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment from Fort Campbell, Ky., a medical evacuation team stationed at Balad, Iraq, north of Baghdad. Its motto: “Bene Volare Vitam Salvare,” “To fly well is to save lives.”
Mission Killer Rauscher with his fellow crew members. After three tours in Iraq, he sees a definite shift in casualties, from American to Iraqis.
Paul Rauscher, a chief warrant officer and pilot originally from Lake of Ozarks, Minn., was on his third trip to Iraq, where he piloted a UH-60 Sikorsky, a type of flying ambulance with 6 litters for the wounded.
Rauscher was considered a mission-killer. “Nothing ever happens when I come on duty,” he said jokingly while introducing me to his crew and commanding officer. On the other hand, 1st Lt. Travis Owen, a young pilot on his first tour in Iraq, had a reputation for being a “mission magnet.” I guess the two men were supposed to cancel each other out, and with the drop in violence, the odds were that we were going to spend a lot of the day watching movies.
The new guy: 1st Lieutenant Travis Owen of Houston, Texas, is a newly minted pilot on his first tour in Iraq. A graduate of Florida Institute of Technology, Owen joined out of a “sense of pride in my country and for the nation.”
Movies are the most popular form of entertainment in Iraq and it’s not uncommon to pick up “hajji” versions – pirated copies – of the absolute latest releases. In Iraq, oil distribution was very problematic, but the network for black market blockbusters was excelsior.
Rauscher showed me the maps of the surroundings and of his area of responsibility. We were 30 clicks or so from big, sprawling Baghdad, 40 miles if you went all the way to the Green Zone, a trip Rauscher had often made.
I asked him what he thought of the Green Zone and learned that, as a pilot, he had never seen much more than the Washington Landing Zone, a small area that looks suspiciously like every other landing zone in Iraq.
To deploy to Iraq means to limit your time and space to a very small area, even when you’re a pilot flying hundreds of miles. I live in Manhattan, and much of my life takes place within a couple of square blocks. Most people frequent the same places, drive the same way to work in the morning and will eat a handful of favorite foods in the evening. Routine is normal, even comforting, but the difference to the routine in Iraq is that there is no alternative.
Rauscher probably would like to step out of his Blackhawk and explore the millennial capital of ancient Mesopotamia, but he could not and he would not.
Freedom is the first casualty of war, where something as obvious as a choice is simply beyond contemplation.
We looked at the maps and talked about locations, and the conversation eventually led to directions.
Where was Iraq going? Anyone who told you they had the answer to that question was either a liar or a politician. Each soldier, diplomat, police officer, Iraqi child or professor had an opinion. My job was to listen, ask questions and try to provide the most honest interpretation possible.
“During my first two tours, when we got called, we were probably going to pick up a wounded American,” said Rauscher. But this was his third tour and times have changed. As Iraqi forces “stand up,” they also take more risks.
“Today, when we go out, the odds are we’ll pick up an Iraqi,” he said. And it wasn’t just Iraqis falling victims to violence. A busload of Iraqi soldiers turned over in a car accident and within 30 minutes were flooding the American military hospital. A young Iraqi boy fell from a roof and ended up in the modern intensive care unit. Another boy burned in a “leaf fire.” He eventually died at the American military hospital.
In American history, survival rates have never been higher than in the war in Iraq. Helicopters make it possible to reach the wounded anywhere in country in under 30 minutes. Just as important are the abilities of medics and corpsman, the “docs” dedicated to each unit. More soldiers are learning how to run an IV, or intubate the wounded.
Yes, people laugh even during a time of war. Before we got the emergency call, it seemed like a calm day with nothing much to do, but once the call came, this crew was dead on serious. What was remarkable was how quickly they went right back to enjoying their day.
In boot camp, drill instructors make Marines scream at the top of their lungs, “Start the breathing, stop the bleeding, protect the wound and treat for shock.” Some of that stuff must have remained, even after the voices went hoarse.
Rauscher and his men were “out of the way” in a far-off part of the base where no one really bothered them. The unit had its own little gym, chow hall and entertainment center.
“This doesn’t even feel like a war zone,” Rauscher told me before we sat down for what I immediately pronounced the worst chow in Iraq. Isolation had its price. I cut into my rubbery spaghetti ball that could have been meatloaf.
“Medevac, medevac, medevac!” I was told the dispatcher said “medevac” three times although I barely heard the codeword the first time. Rauscher and crew were sprinting out of the chow hall. Chairs flipped over and what we used for food spilled off the table and onto the floor. We all sprinted to the helipad.
Seconds before, we were joking about the bad food and less than five minutes later we were speeding over the Iraqi countryside at 400 feet and just under 200 miles per hour. The crew had gone from immature frat boys to a professional and focused team flying into a serious situation – someone had been shot.
No mounted weaponry needed. Geneva Convention rules offer “Legal Protection of Medical Transport by Helicopter in Armed Conflicts.”
In the air, I noticed several Apache helicopters approaching to escort us. Geneva Convention rules prevent medical helicopters from carrying the heavy weaponry that other choppers packed, and the red cross on the front and side of the vehicle amounted to little more than a clear, bright target from the ground.
Below was Iraq – the real Iraq outside of the American bubble surrounding the air base. From the air, I saw the stone houses with gardens in the backyard, the dusty roads where visibility was as clear as the medicine cabinet mirror after a hot shower.
We came down with just enough time to load the two wounded. The force from the propellers is enough to knock a man over, and the noise of the two choppers together was deafening. The medics from the choppers moved the wounded across the pad, into the racks and snapped each one in. We were off.
This wounded Iraqi was later revealed to be an insurgent who fired at a police officer. The medical crew will treat all wounded indiscriminately according to the Geneva Convention.
Within seconds we were hundreds of feet in the sky. A young Iraqi in his early 20s had a smartly placed bandage on his right shoulder. The medic placed what looked to be a slab of wood under the dressing, meant to provide stability. The boy winced when the bird turned at an angle the way a rollercoaster will take a fast turn. Then it was straight back to the base.
Service with a smile. This was taken right after we landed. The Point of Injury, POI, can be anywhere including in a hostile environment.
On the hospital landing pad, a group of men and women were already waiting for incoming patients. With practiced ease, the crew unloaded the Iraqi and the hospital staff huddled around the patient and moved him inside.
Five minutes later, we were back in the chow hall picking up where we had left off – bad food and funny jokes. My adrenaline was still pumping, but these guys knew this was just business as usual. Because embedding with a quick reaction force was like drawing straws, and they were going to have to be ready for the next pick.
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Matt Sanchez, originally from California, is a New York City-based writer currently embedded with the U.S. military in Iraq. His work has appeared in the New York Post, National Review and the Weekly Standard.
A corporal in the United States Marine Corps Reserve and a student at Columbia University where he’s working on degree in American Studies, Sanchez says his mission in Iraq is “to report on the stories that matter the most, first-person accounts by the men and women on the ground.” His blog, Matt-Sanchez.com, chronicles his work.