JOINT BASE BALAD, Iraq - Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines – too many to remember all of their names. Too many to remember all of their stories. Countless servicemembers pass through the hands of the aeromedical evacuation flight here. Many plant footprints in the memories of the medical crews, while some leave a little piece of their spirit and legend behind.
Those few are the inspirational, the proud and the patriotic – the ones the 332nd Expeditionary Aeromedical Evacuation Flight remember as they transport patients from forward operating bases through Joint Base Balad and, finally, to a better-equipped medical facility outside the area of responsibility.
Air Force major finds her calling through a young Soldier
Though she has been a nurse in other capacities – working in neonatal, recovery rooms, intensive care units and emergency rooms – for many decades, Maj. Marty Maddox, 332nd EAEF flight nurse, is relatively new to the aeromedical evacuation mission, having only two years experience as a flight nurse. Before arriving at JBB for her current deployment, Maddox’s first deployment experience as a flight nurse was on a short deployment transporting patients out of the AOR.
A reservist deployed from the 36th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron at Pope Air Force Base, N.C., Maddox and her medical crew picked up patients from Iraq and Afghanistan, transporting some through Germany and taking them back to the U.S. for advanced medical care.
Flying from Germany to the U.S. with 57 patients, Maddox and the rest of the crew were able to chat with their patients on the approximate 10-hour flight.
The medical crew really got to know the patients –where they came from and what they did, she said. One patient in particular, a 23-year-old Soldier, helped the major see that being a flight nurse was her calling.
The patient had already lost one leg, and “they were trying to save his other leg. He was missing some of fingers, and we were trying to save his thumb,” Maddox said. “He was just the bravest young Army Soldier.”
The Soldier’s mother flew to Germany for her son then managed to get on the flight with him back to the U.S.
“We got to know him, we got to know his mom… He cried, I cried, his mom cried,” Maddox recalled. “That really got to me. That’s when I knew I had gotten into the right line of work - that being a flight nurse was truly going to be something I wanted it to be because we’re doing something good. Because we’re getting these Airmen, Soldiers, Sailors and Marines back home.
“I will never forget him,” she said of the Soldier she saw that day.
Senior airman remembered, served Memorial Day
Senior Airman Nicole Caldwell, 332nd EAEF aeromedical evacuation technician also deployed from the 36th AES at Pope AFB, is on her first deployment in the 23 months she has been in the Air Force. The single mother of two girls, Caldwell’s most memorable mission was being able to fly on Memorial Day, she said, a meaningful day for her and her country.
“Just being able to fly on that day – bringing back wounded Soldiers, Sailors, Airmen and Marines – was very rewarding,” Caldwell said.
But just as her fellow medical crewmembers, Caldwell recalls one particular patient who made an influence on her and her career as an AET.
After surviving the blasts from seven or eight separate improvised explosive devices, or IED's, and suffering from a traumatic brain injury, this servicemember was persistent in getting his boots on the ground, back into the fight with his unit.
“His spirits, of wanting to get patched up and get back out there,” were just remarkable, Caldwell remembered.
“He was young,” she said. “It kind of hurt a little bit to see that he was so young. But his spirits were just so high, and it makes you love doing this even more.”
Seeing things like that aren’t easy, nor are they expected to be, but “it’s something you just accept as part of your job,” said the senior airman.
Every mission a memory for senior NCO
There have been so many, Senior Master Sgt. Tony Staut, 332nd EAEF superintendant and aeromedical evacuation technician, said of the impactful missions he’s seen throughout his 17-year career as an aeromedical evacuation technician. “Every mission you fly triggers some kind of a memory or becomes a memory of one patient or another.”
Staut, deployed from the 36th AES at Pope AFB, the greatest memories are with the people he works with and the deployment operations he supports, he said, but “I can remember several patients specifically.”
One patient he knows of only through accounts he heard of the medical crew that flew with the injured service member.
The patient had a traumatic eye injury. Both eyes were severely injured and the theater hospital at Joint Base Balad determined his eyesight could only be salvaged if the patient was transported to a facility in San Antonio for surgery.
“I wasn’t involved with the flight, but it’s a testament to what can happen in this career field and the people I get to work with,” said Staut. They flew that patient with a double set of aeromedical evacuation technicians and aircrew members - pilots and loadmasters - on a C-17 Globemaster III non-stop from Balad to San Antonio.
A mere 20 hours from injury in Iraq, the patient was in surgery.
“That patient, that Marine, will be able to look upon his children for the rest of his life because of the capability we have here,” Staut said.
Another patient, one Staut remembers distinctly, had injuries so severe he wasn’t expected to survive.
“Our goal was to get him back to his family so that they could spend some last moments with their Soldier,” recalled Staut. “That, to me was an honor – to give the family that gift was something that was special to me and always remains.
“We spare no expense to make that kind of thing happen because that’s what we’re here for. It’s a unique job… and it’s an honor to do it every day,” he said.