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Airman of the Year saved earthquake victims, recovered remains in Nepal

July 5, 2016 (Photo Credit: Courtesy of Dylan Crawford)

 

For Staff Sgt. Clifford “Dylan” Crawford, the massive earthquake and aftershocks that struck Nepal last year resulted in “the pararescue mission of the century.”

Crawford, a pararescueman from the 31st Rescue Squadron at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, is the 2016 Air Force Times Airman of the Year.

He was in the middle of training exercises in the Philippines when the first 7.8-magnitude quake struck near Nepal’s Ghorka district on April 25, 2015. He said he was one of five airmen who immediately volunteered to go help. As the airmen were driving to the airfield to board two Ospreys, they got word that another major aftershock had hit.

They flew throughout Nepal, looking for signs of people who needed help, Crawford said in a May 4 interview. He was the only PJ on board his Osprey, so when they landed, he would go into each village and either examine the wounded who had already been taken to a collection point, or help dig wounded Nepalese out of the rubble. Crawford helped get the wounded back to the helicopter and transport them to a mini-hospital in Kathmandu for further treatment. Crawford said he flew seven or eight trips to save people that first day and night in Nepal.

U.S., Nepalese Troops rush to rescue casualties of second Nepal quake
An Air Force pararescueman with Joint Task Force 505 helps evacuate earthquake victims from an area near Charikot, Nepal, after a 7.3 magnitude earthquake struck the country April 25. At Nepal’s request the U.S. government ordered JTF 505 to provide unique capabilities to assist the country.
Photo Credit: Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Anderson/Marine Corps

After a while, most survivors had already been dug out of the rubble. And at that point, people would swarm Crawford’s helicopter as soon as it landed. It fell to him to triage the wounded and decide which critical patients were most in need of immediate evacuation to Kathmandu.

“I had patients all the way from very, very young, almost newborn, to extremely elderly,” Crawford said.

Saving lives

Crawford and his fellow airmen were in Nepal for three weeks in all. During that time, he helped save the lives of 44 Nepalese. And for Crawford — who was an emergency medical technician in high school in his small hometown of Skiatook, Oklahoma — that was exactly the reason he decided to join the Air Force and become a PJ.

“To be able to go out and immediately use all the medical knowledge that I learned and have such a wide variety of patients that I was able to help was pretty incredible,” Crawford said. “To be that one guy on the ground, to go out and do mass casualties in the villages and help as many people as I could and get them to the best medical care that I possibly could, and also give them the treatment that they needed on the ground and in the helicopter, it was pretty incredible for me.”

Crawford treated everything from broken legs — many of them — to soft tissue wounds, to airway complications, and gave IVs to people who had lost blood. He treated babies with facial trauma, and re-inserted a Foley catheter that had gotten ripped out of one man.

“It was a test of all my skills,” Crawford said. “It was a good mission where I got to help, and actually see the effects of what I was doing immediately, and help get those people out of a bad situation.”

636027245225303849-AIR-SMOY-Crawford-7.JPG
Crawford, with the 31st Rescue Squadron out of Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan, joined three other PJs, a combat rescue officer and about 12 Nepalese rangers to recover the bodies of Marines and Nepalese who died tragically on the side of a mountain as they were assisting in disaster relief efforts.
Photo Credit: Air Force

Another tragedy struck May 12, 2015, when a helicopter carrying six Marines, two Nepalese soldiers and five injured civilians crashed on a steep mountainside in Nepal. Crawford, three other PJs, one combat rescue officer, and about 12 Nepalese rangers were sent to recover their bodies. Crawford said they searched for three days — all while continuing to medevac wounded quake victims — before finding the helicopter, and then stayed at the crash site on the mountain for four days while conducting recovery operations.

Conditions were harrowing. It was cold, foggy and rainy 12,000 feet up the mountain, Crawford said. Aftershocks kept coming, causing landslides while they tried to stabilize the crash site and get the remains out of a ravine, as well as recover sensitive items.

“We had to pull them out of the helicopter while also trying not to fall off the cliff,” Crawford said. “It was about a 300-foot decline where the crash was spread across, and then another 500- to 600-foot drop at the end of the decline. At the top was about a 45-foot vertical” that further hampered their recovery operations.

The winners of our 16th annual Military Times Service Members of the Year awards did not seek honors for the outstanding work they performed on the job and in their communities.

That is what makes this award so special: They were nominated by peers and commanders inspired by serving alongside troops who truly went above and beyond the call of duty. In shining a spotlight on the 2016 Service Members of the Year, we salute all who have volunteered to serve their nation in uniform.

This year's winners will be honored July 14 at a Capitol Hill gala with members of Congress and other VIPs. 

Curry and leopards

Despite the difficulty of that part of their mission, there were bright spots. They ran out of food, so they bought a goat from a 12-year-old Sherpa, and the Nepalese rangers made goat curry.

“It was amazing,” Crawford said.

But there were also snow leopards lurking around their crash site, Crawford said. They kept finding paw prints in the area, and the Nepalese saw one the first night. So the rangers set fires at each corner of their campsite, and took turns standing watch with their rifles.

636027248777602620-image-4-.jpg
Crawford, other airmen and Nepalese rangers spent four days perched on the side of a 12,000 foot mountain in the Himalayas as they were recovering the remains of Marines and Nepalese troops. They kept fires going at night to ward off snow leopards.
Photo Credit: Courtesy

The rangers told them nobody was allowed to go off on their own, Crawford said. That’s when people typically become prey for predators like snow leopards.

“It was an ‘all in a day’s work’ kind of thing,” Crawford said of the encounter with the predators. “There was nothing we could do about it. It was a very eventful trip.”

Giving back

Crawford volunteered with the Special Olympics at Kadena last year, helping build up and tear down facilities for the event. He also has volunteered with the Special Olympics in previous years, serving as an athlete buddy, assistant coach and cheerleader for a participant, helping him keep up his enthusiasm and motivation. That was important to him, Crawford said, because his mother taught special education classes.

Crawford has donated time to the emergency room and operating room at the Naval Hospital at Camp Foster on Okinawa several times over the past year. That not only allows him to help the community, he said, but also helps keep his own medical skills sharp.

636027245371788788-AIR-SMOY-Crawford-4.JPG
Crawford donates time to the ER and OR at the naval hospital at Camp Foster on Okinawa. It has the added benefit of helping to keep his own medical skills sharp, he said.
Photo Credit: Courtesy of Dylan Crawford

Crawford has donated time to the emergency room and operating room at the Naval Hospital at Camp Foster on Okinawa several times over the past year. That not only allows him to help the community, he said, but also helps keep his own medical skills sharp.

Crawford said he would volunteer anywhere from three hours on a slow day to six or seven hours when things got busy, helping with irrigation and suturing of wounds in the ER, and intubations in the OR. 

Crawford recently completed a deployment to Afghanistan, where he helped recover an F-16 pilot who crashed during a takeoff near Bagram Airfield in March. That pilot was uninjured, Crawford said.

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