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Dealing with the heart-wrenching wounds of war is the hardest part of what a special group of airmen do. It's not just younger aeromedical specialists who get deeply affected as they tend to the wounded during transport to more advanced care, a senior Delaware Air National Guard flight nurse says.
"It's tough for anybody," said Capt. Anne Cloud, officer-in-charge of a five-member aeromedical evacuation unit leaving the New Castle, Del., Air National Guard Base on Friday to spend six months supporting the U.S. war effort in Afghanistan.
"It doesn't matter," Cloud said. "It's tough." The wounded troops, she said, "could be my children."
But it can be particularly difficult for the younger airmen, despite their intensive training, said Cloud, making her sixth overseas deployment.
"We have two new people," she said of her crew of five, the first of about two dozen total flight nurses, medical technicians and other personnel from the 142nd Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron deploying over the coming weeks. "And some of what we see" can be very traumatic, she said.
"Sometimes, we're just flying them, keeping them alive so that their family can say goodbye to them," Cloud said. "So we have to think about that - that we're giving that family closure. So we're still doing good."
The five-member "AE" teams - two nurses, three medical technicians each - will fly missions within Afghanistan as well as operate on cargo jets that they are trained to reconfigure into flying hospital wards, replete with special racks that can hold patient litters.
The intratheater flights will take them from Bagram Airfield to various forward operating bases to pick up sick and injured troops who require more advanced care and return them to Bagram for treatment at Craig Joint Theater Hospital.
The team could also find itself on flights bringing such troops out of the war theater to Ramstein, Germany, for more advanced treatment at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center and, if need be, back to the United States for the most advanced care. Burn patients, for instance, are flown to Brooke Army Medical Center, Texas.
Despite the sad reality, there's a fringe benefit to the presence of such a team.
"If something else is going and we might need a doctor, and that doctor's on board, we can use them," said 1st Lt. Sean Kelley, the detachment's other flight nurse.
Senior Airman Samantha Power, 22, will be making her first deployment. Her training as a flight medic included a stint at Joint Base Andrews, Md., where she helped unload wounded patients flown in from Germany or straight from Afghanistan.
"I'm excited, and nervous," said Parker, who is studying to be a nurse. "I have not done a live mission yet, with the patient load."
She said her experience at Andrews two years ago gave her a bit of a sense of what she might see on deployment.
"It was a little more difficult to see," she said. "You just take care of them as much as you can."
If a team member is struggling with his or her emotions, the more experienced specialists will discreetly conduct a post-mission briefing to talk about the situation, Cloud said. They also teach the younger airmen "coping mechanisms" to deal with what they see and hear.
"There's ways that you can relax," Cloud said. "You don't want to dwell on [the injuries]. You need to try to decompress from what you've seen."
Music is one such outlet, and Cloud notes another stress-reliever: "We go to the gym a lot."
And, likely, sleep a lot. Missions can last as long as 24 hours, Cloud said.
Still, the work is satisfying, according to team members.
"You get the chance to take care of people that are out there doing the job." said Kelley, a former Marine. "That's one of the reasons I do it, because I find satisfaction in it.
"You're helping people. I think any position where you get a chance to help people makes it more rewarding," he added.