When a soldier was critically injured in a blast in Afghanistan, the Air Force quickly mobilized to conduct an unprecedented, four-day mission: REACH 797.
Air Mobility Command’s 618th Air Operations Center, along with multiple squadrons and medical teams, conducted an urgent aeromedical evacuation from Bagram Air Base, Afghanistan, to Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio in mid-August.
“There were so many moving parts to this mission that we knew we had to get every aspect 100 percent correct the first time,” said Maj. Dan Kudlacz, the REACH 797 C-17 pilot and aircraft commander from Dover Air Force Base’s 436th Airlift Wing, according to an Air Force news release. “Should one thing have fallen out of line during the flight, it could have … impacted this soldier’s life, which is something that weighed heavily on all of us when we received notification of this mission.”
Kudlacz said the mission first required loading an intricate flight plan to the aircraft’s software. Other factors also made the mission challenging, including flying into a combat zone, transporting 18 medical crew members and ensuring the cabin pressure didn’t impact the soldier’s injuries.
“You can begin to see that there was a lot to manage, from alert to liftoff,” Kudlacz said.
Before the soldier was evacuated from Afghanistan, he was taken to Craig Joint Theater Hospital at Bagram Airfield to undergo multiple blood transfusions and stabilizing surgeries. Just 15 minutes after a call was put out, more than 100 soldiers appeared as part of a walking blood bank, according to the Air Force.
“Their quick work led to the patient being taken to a higher echelon of care in under 48 hours,” said Maj. Lisa Haik, the 455th Enroute Patient Staging System flight commander, according to the Air Force news release. “Overall, the actions of all involved represent just a fraction of what the [Craig Joint Theater Hospital] can provide to our warriors.”
Ultimately, a lead surgeon at Bagram decided urgent aeromedical evacuation out of Afghanistan was needed to get the soldier back to the U.S. for specialized care at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.
For that to happen, the Air Force said, Kudlacz and his C-17 crew were redirected from another mission and instead headed to Bagram as part of REACH 797. The plan was for them to make a non-stop flight from there to San Antonio — an 8,000-mile journey that took a total of 20 hours.
During the flight, aeromedical evacuation and Critical Care Air Transport team airmen from the 10th Expeditionary Aeromedical Evacuation Flight and an extracorporeal membrane oxygenation team from the 59th Medical Wing tended to the soldier.
Once in the air, two KC-135 Stratotanker crews based out of MacDill Air Force Base in Florida refueled the C-17 at two points during the flight: one time off the coast of the United Kingdom, and again near Bangor, Maine. All told, the rescue required 24,000 gallons of fuel.
The Air Force noted that refueling for aeromedical evacuations is not standard procedure because refueling is often accompanied by turbulence. However, time was of the essence in order to get the soldier to San Antonio as expeditiously as possible.
Upon arriving in Texas, the soldier was reunited with his family and continued to receive the medical attention required to save his life. The military has not disclosed the identity of the soldier due to personal and family privacy.
“This mission involved a tremendous amount of teamwork; between the skill of the aircrews operating under exhausting conditions, to our AOC planners who determined aircraft and aircrew availability, provided mission support and tailored specialized [aeromedical evacuation] care enroute and the medical professionals who provided unrivaled critical care,” said Brig. Gen. Jimmy Canlas, 618th AOC commander, according to the news release.
“With a soldier’s life on the line, these airmen worked 24/7, across multiple time zones, to pull together all the pieces and ensure this soldier made it home,” he said.
Approximately 14,000 U.S. service members are stationed in Afghanistan. They are primarily responsible for advising and training Afghan security forces.