SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras –
A Humvee loaded with all the equipment to set up a mobile operating room is not an especially unusual sight on Soto Cano Air Base.
However, the same Humvee dangling beneath an Army CH-47 Chinook helicopter at 1,000 feet tends to turn a few heads, seeing as it's never been done here.
Oct. 31 marked a milestone in Joint Task Force-Bravo history, when for the first time in the JTF's 25-year history three of the major supporting commands here teamed up to move the Medical Element's Mobile Surgical Team by slingloading it beneath a CH-47.
According to Army Maj. (Dr.) Richard Malish, the mission commander and MEDEL flight surgeon, the JTF-level exercise took more than five months to come to fruition.
"It was originally scheduled for August, but we had several real-world delays," he explained. The delays included short-notice deployments to Peru, Belize and Nicaragua for humanitarian assistance missions.
But on Oct. 30, two Humvees were loaded with more than 1,000 pounds of medical equipment each, including an operating table, oxygen, an anesthesia machine, generators and a 500-pound tent. The following morning, a convoy of six vehicles, including the two Humvees, drove to a pickup zone where the Army Forces Search and Rescue team trained Army and Air Force medics in slingload procedures.
"We worked on things like grounding, hand and arm signals and site surveillance," Major Malish said of the team's static training, done without aircraft overhead. Following the static training, the helicopter did three training flights where the team practiced hooking up the vehicles for transport. Following the training flights, Major Malish said the team went into a scenario exercise.
The advance team (ADVON) went out to the landing zone on the helicopter, and upon arrival "called back" and requested the MST be brought forward. The two Humvees were then hooked up and flown to the drop zone a few hundred meters away.
According to Major Malish, the equipment deployed was enough to treat five patients for 72 hours before a resupply would be required.
The major, deployed to Soto Cano from Ft. Bragg, N.C., said the training validated the concept that an MST could be delivered in this manner.
"We've shown countless times on paper that we could do this," he said. "This training proves that we can take this resource and drop it anywhere."
Major Malish said this validation instills confidence in the teams that may respond to any of a number of possible contingencies throughout Central America.
"A lot of scenarios, such as earthquakes, hurricanes and floods, involve destroyed roads and more," he explained. "This will not only get us past the obstacle of not having accessible roads, but it speeds things up.
"With this capability, we don't necessarily need landing strips like we would with fixed-wing aircraft," he continued. "We can help Honduras and the surrounding countries very rapidly in the event of a disaster or accident."
The major added that the mission was a complete success. "In the end, we accomplished everything we wanted to do," he said.
Air Force Tech. Sgt. Bruce Graybill, MST noncommissioned officer in charge, said as a medic he's never done anything like this before, but would do it again in an instant.
"It was very exciting being underneath the helicopter, with the rotor wash and all," he said, referring to when his team had to hook the Humvees up to the Chinook.
While the training may have been fun, Sergeant Graybill, deployed here from the U.S. Air Force Academy, also acknowledged the incredible value it holds.
"We're the only surgical asset for Southern Command in this theater," he explained. "With this capability we can mobilize quickly and effectively."
For the sergeant, the best part of the whole experience was seeing all the planning and coordination that had gone into the operation come to term without any major problems.
"We pulled it off without any lost or broken equipment and no injuries," he said.
Army Staff Sgt. David Hattan, lead SAR team instructor for the exercise, said his team enjoyed training the medics, but also gained valuable experiences for themselves.
"It's great teaching someone things they need to accomplish the mission," he explained. "For us, it reinforced our search and rescue capabilities and training. It definitely boosts confidence for real missions."
The sergeant said for a group of medics who had never done this before, the training went very well. "Everyone knew exactly what to do when the helos came in."
Sergeant Hattan said another crucial part of the mission's success was the flexibility of the 1st Battalion, 228th Aviation Regiment. He said their ability to adapt quickly to changes and professionalism in their jobs made the rest of the exercise possible.
As with any first attempt at something of this magnitude, lessons were learned, Major Malish said. But the training was a tremendous success, and the lessons the teams took from this will be incorporated in the next operation, which the major says will be "bigger and better."
"We're going to try to include trailers and more equipment, as well as landing at a location outside Soto Cano," he said. "This opens a world of possibilities."