AN NAJAF, Iraq -- In a large tent, a uniformed man sat watching television. Another sitting in the corner of the room was reading a book. A young corpsman looked at his hand, deciding what card to play as his friends around the weathered card table laughed and joked.
Suddenly, the relaxed environment exploded with urgent movement as the radio blared, "Attention all shops... Attention all shops... Troubleshooters on the line... Casevac! Casevac!" Dropping their cards, the game forgotten, the corpsmen scrambled to don their gear. Crew chiefs and pilots ran to the helicopters, quickly preparing for liftoff. Speed and precision were of highest importance -- somewhere, someone was severely injured and his or her life, saved or lost, would be decided by minutes.
Adrenaline rushing through his veins, 24-year-old HM3 Christopher Pair took his seat behind the crew chief in the back of the CH-46 Sea Knight helicopter. Ten minutes from the first call, they were in the air and on their way to the landing zone for a casualty evacuation. Pair received little information as to the severity of the wounds. All he knew was that one Army soldier, two Marines, and three enemy militia members were in need of aid. Upon landing, three casualties were loaded into each helicopter.
Years of medical training, both routine and trauma, have become instinct for these 'docs.' Their driving force? That oftentimes the difference between life and death for their patients rests in their hands. There is no time to think, only time to act, and these corpsmen only have minutes until the casualties fly to a level two hospital for further treatment.
"It seems impossible when you look back on it," said Pair, a Hickory, N.C., resident attached to the MEU's avaition combat element. "Your training becomes second nature. You do so much at once, you're stunned by what you just did when it's all over."
Speed and clear thinking saved lives during fighting between Muqtada Militiamen and 11th MEU and Iraqi security forces in August. Getting the casualties evacuated safely and treated so fast required the efforts of every squadron member. Fuelers, radio control tower operators, mechanics, crew chiefs, corpsmen, and many others diligently worked around the clock to provide 24-hour service. The team constantly ran a 30-minute strip alert. From the first call for help, they had a 30-minute window to get two helicopters off the ground. No job at HMM-166 was small.
"We pride ourselves in speed," boasted Lt. Col. John "Will" Guthrie, commanding officer of HMM-166. "We have 30 minutes, but we do it in about 10. I am proud of my entire 500-person team. It takes all of them to make this happen. They (did) an amazing job under difficult times and difficult situations."
Though they were presented with huge obstacles, they overcame them.
"It has been challenging to get the people we (needed) for this program," said HM2 Ryan W. Dilkes, 24, corpsman. "The Marine Corps is not corpsman billeted for this job. Usually, this is the Army's mission, but right now they are limited as to where they can fly into because of lack of defense on their aircraft."
According to rules set forth by the Geneva Convention, a bold white cross marks helicopters dedicated strictly to medical services so they can be identified in a combat environment. They are not allowed to have offensive weapons on them as they are considered non-combatants. However, it becomes dangerous for the crew and the casualties of such Army helicopters when they fly into hostile situations where terrorists do not play by Geneva Convention rules.
To overcome this challenge, the Marine Corps flies 'designated medevac' helicopters -- those not bearing the white cross. They can also be used for other missions and are allowed to carry weapons. Called a "phrog" because of its blunt nosed resemblance to the little amphibian, the CH-46 is anything but harmless. This helicopter carries .50-caliber machine guns and is very capable of defending itself.
Dedication is truly a common bond through HMM-166, evidenced by their success rate.
"I like casevac because we can save the lives of those who risk their lives for us," said Lt. Douglas Blume, a 33-year-old flight surgeon from Laguna, Calif. "We are doing something worthwhile for the world."
"So far," he added, "everyone not KIA (killed in action) has survived the flight."
Those KIA, or “angels" as they are reverently called, are given the same deference as any patient on the flight.
"Out of respect for fallen Marines, we treat angels like those patients still with us... with priority," said Blume.
During fighting in Najaf, the team ensured that all angels were safely transported to mortuary affairs where they are taken home to their families.
"It was an eye opener when on a return flight, an angel's hand fell from under the poncho covering him," recalls Dilks. "I saw the hand of a 20-year-old Marine wearing a wedding ring. It was very sad. If it weren't for the line company, or 'grunt' corpsmen, we would be sending home more angels and fewer casualties. They (did) a great job saving lives on the ground."
Not a part of the squadron, yet very much members of the team, these heroic corpsmen travel with infantry units and render life saving treatment needed until casevac arrives.
"The grunt corpsmen have the hardest job of any medical personnel out here," said HM3 Matt Schmall, corpsman. "They have a very high stress level but still stay motivated. They are doing a great job and we couldn't do ours without them."
Esprit de corps radiates from the entire crew at HMM-166. Their discipline and dedication to teamwork saved nearly 30 lives during the fighting in August.
"We love saving lives but hate to see the injuries," said Pair. "This is a bitter-sweet job."