NEWS | Nov. 14, 2007

Rashes to rotors: Air Force medics augment deployed Army aviation team

By Staff Sgt. Austin M. May Joint Task Force-Bravo Public Affairs

The purpose of a joint task force is to bring members of various branches of the armed forces with different occupational specialties together to achieve a common goal.

When 21 servicemembers from Joint Task Force-Bravo at Soto Cano Air Base, Honduras, deployed to the Dominican Republic Nov. 5 to assist the island nation recover after being hit by Tropical Storm Noel, pilots, crew chiefs, communications technicians and medics had one initial goal: get ready to get moving.

Getting the team's two UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters ready to deliver thousands of pounds of food, medicine and provisions to villages across the nation was a task not to be taken lightly. It required a multitude of steady hands and careful eyes, and hours of intense labor in the hot Caribbean sun.

Enter the medics.

Air Force Staff Sgts. Robert Daly and David Pagani, JTF-Bravo Medical Element, deployed to the Dominican Republic to assist the search and rescue teams and aircrews with any minor medical issues that may have come up during their scheduled missions. But when they arrived, they found themselves applying not so many bandages to cuts as screws and bolts to maintenance panels and rotor blades.

"I'd never even ridden in a helicopter, let alone help put one together," Sergeant Daly said. "It was a new experience for me, and one that I'll value for the rest of my career."

Army Sgt. 1st Class Jason Rittichier, a UH-60 crew chief with the 1st Battalion-228th Aviation Regiment at Soto Cano, said having the medics' assistance really sped things up in terms of getting the aircraft ready to fly.

"They probably cut about two hours off the time it would normally take for an eight-person crew to generate two Black Hawks," he said. "They were doing relatively easy stuff, but it freed our mechanics up to concentrate on the highly technical details only we are trained to do."

The sergeant said while the tasks given to the medics were not especially difficult, the pair learned very quickly and were able to work mostly unsupervised.

"I'm fully comfortable flying on these helicopters having seen the job those two did," he said. "I would definitely ask them to help us again."

Sergeant Daly, who is on a five-month deployment to Honduras from Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Ohio, said working on the Black Hawks ultimately made him feel safer about flying on them.

"I wasn't worried about going up in [the helicopters], but having seen first-hand the care and attention to detail these guys put into their jobs, I'm just that much more comfortable when we're in the air," he said.

Both Sergeants Daly and Pagani have flown numerous supply and medical sorties with the two Black Hawk crews deployed to the Dominican Republic. Once the overall scope of the combined operation shifted from disaster relief to medical assistance and JTF-Bravo sent 13 additional medical personnel to Hispaniola, the pair was able to focus more attention on their primary duties, but still felt like part of the original 21-person team.

"I'm an Air Force medic first, and all other duties must come after that," Sergeant Pagani said. "But the aviators here with us made me feel just like part of their crew, and even though I'm not really working with them as much now, that part hasn't changed."

The two sergeants have joined their medical brethren on Expeditionary Medical Liaison teams, setting up rudimentary clinics in austere conditions across the country and providing assistance to those who need it. But when they aren't taking vitals and passing out medications, they are chomping at the bit to strap into a helicopter and go wherever they're needed.

"The food and supply deliveries are in the same vein of the medical missions," Sergeant Daly said. "We're taking items these people need but may not be able to get and delivering them almost directly to their doorsteps."

Sergeant Pagani, who is deployed to JTF-Bravo from the United States Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., said although the days are long and he usually goes home exhausted, each mission is worth every minute of his time and he never gets tired of volunteering.

"I try to get out on every single mission I possibly can," he said. "This is what we're here to do, and I love doing it."

Sergeant Daly said although he thoroughly enjoys the job he and his fellow servicemembers are doing in the Dominican Republic, he knows they will have to leave soon and return to Soto Cano. But he said going back has its perks.

"Hopefully I'll get to help take the helicopters apart and get them ready to be transported back to Honduras," he said. "And when we get there, I'd love to get to help put them back together again."