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Flying with a U.S. Army 'Dustoff' medevac unit in Afghanistan

EDITOR'S NOTE: AP photographer Anja Niedringhaus traveled with a U.S. Army "Dustoff" medevac unit for two weeks in Afghanistan's volatile Helmand province. This is her first-person account of one dangerous day on the job for the soldiers.

ABOARD A BLACK HAWK HELICOPTER IN SOUTHERN AFGHANISTAN

The Army medics had just dropped off a Marine wounded in a bombing when one reached over and handed me a scribbled note inside the noisy U.S. helicopter. "We got another mission," the message from U.S. Army Sgt. Josef Campbell read. I jotted back: "Where?" "Sangin, hot landing zone, Marines under fire, one is injured."

Southern Afghanistan remains a stronghold of the Taliban, and Sangin is a hotly contested district. The spring fighting season is now under way. That means more soldiers wounded by gunfire and bombings. And more work for the medics of the "Dustoff" helicopters.

As we approached Sangin, I saw an Afghan woman hanging her laundry inside the yard of her house. The tranquility of the scene helped me relax.

That sense of calm lasted just a few moments.

Dust, mud and grass churned up in front of us as the Black Hawk landed.

Campbell, 35, of Juniper, Idaho, reached out to open the door. Then gunfire erupted.

I heard a metallic sound and realized the helicopter had been hit. The pilot, Chief Warrant Officer 3 Dan Fink, quickly pulled the helicopter's nose toward the sky. All I could see in front of us were trees and power lines.

"If we are going to crash. I don't want to see it," I thought. My eyes shut, I held onto my seat belt.

I opened my eyes. We hadn't crashed. Slowly, the helicopter gained altitude and rose to safety.

We cruised slowly as Fink, 40, of Spring Hill, Kan., and another pilot, Chief Warrant Officer 2 Niel Steward, 34, of Grand Rapids, Mich., checked the helicopter to make sure it could still maneuver. It could.

Only one thing rushed through my mind: "Please, please, just let us get out of here until that firefight down on the ground ends." But of course I didn't say that out loud.

After 15 minutes, I realized we would return to the same spot. As I looked at Campbell, I noticed his extraordinary level of concentration. He adjusted his gloves, reached for his assault rifle and then peered out of his open window.

I kept trying to find my lucky charms in my pockets.

The helicopter touched down right where we took fire only minutes earlier. The big side door slid open. I reached for my camera, feeling better because I could concentrate on something else.

Campbell jumped out first. He looked around. Neither of us could see the Marines. Suddenly, a Marine jumped up from a ditch nearby, one hand on his stomach and the other holding rosary beads.

The Marine sprinted toward us, turning around to wave to the others that he could make it to the helicopter. Another Marine tried to catch up to help him, but the injured Marine, Lance Cpl. Blas Trevino from 1st Battalion, 5th Marines, ran so fast he made it to the helicopter first.

Trevino latched onto Campbell in a desperate hug.

"You have made it! You have made it!" Campbell shouted over the whine of the idling helicopter.

Trevino collapsed on a stretcher, exhausted. He lifted his head to scream: "Yes, I have made it!"

As the helicopter lifted off again, the medics began treating Trevino for a gunshot wound to his abdomen. During the 10-minute flight, Trevino kept praying while clutching his rosary beads. He gave us thumbs-up signal. He would survive the wound.

We landed at Forward Operating Base Edi outside Sangin but still in Helmand province. Medics carried Trevino into a hospital tent.

Meanwhile, Fink and Stewart walked around the helicopter, looking for damage.

Gunfire had struck five times in the tail. One bullet passed barely a third of an inch from the hydraulic system powering the huge helicopter. Another went through the metal near the fuel tank.

The two men took off their bulletproof vests.

"That was pretty close," they agreed.

Nineteen soldiers make up the U.S. Army "Dustoff" unit. The unit, based out of Landstuhl, Germany, operates from a gravel runway in Helmand province. The soldiers use plastic bags for toilets.

Most of their supplies, like food and water bottles, are dropped by parachute every other day from a plane. Marines run out of the camp to collect them, taking care not to step on land mines.

After a year in Afghanistan, members of the unit will head home with their memories. Spc. Jenny Martinez's voice grew soft as she recounted treating a Marine who stepped on an explosive and lost both of his legs.

She held his hand all the way to the field hospital.

"He didn't want to let me go," said Martinez, 24, of Colorado Springs. But "I had to leave because we had another mission."

View more medevac photos

Find a gallery of Anja Niedringhaus' photos from her time with the medevac crew at tampabay.com/blogs/alleyes.

Flying with a U.S. Army 'Dustoff' medevac unit in Afghanistan 06/17/11 [Last modified: Tuesday, November 8, 2011 1:32pm]

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