Sunday, December 17, 2017
Editorials

Editorial: Training for war helps MacDill crews aid victims of Hurricane Maria

The response hasn't been up to the challenge yet in the devastation brought by Hurricane Maria to the U.S. islands of Puerto Rico, St. Thomas and St. Croix. But as rescue and stabilization efforts are building in the days and weeks since the storm hit, they serve as a reminder of the valuable resource Tampa and the world have in MacDill Air Force Base.

Air Force crews responded quickly to the disaster, staging at MacDill for missions that include a continuing series of evacuation flights to bring people in the worst condition to one of four U.S. hospitals. The first flight left MacDill last Sunday, four days after Hurricane Irma hit Puerto Rico.

A grim but efficient procession of patients in wheelchairs and on stretchers, brought to a military cargo plane hastily converted into a flying ambulance, was chronicled in words and pictures last week by Douglas R. Clifford of the Tampa Bay Times. Some planes evacuate as many as 60 patients at a time.

The efforts of aid agencies and volunteers, including the collection of money and goods within Puerto Rican communities across Tampa Bay, are vital to the islands' recovery from this catastrophe.

But it's hard to imagine an effective response on a scale this one requires without the full involvement of the U.S. military. MacDill, some 1,200 air miles from the islands — most of it over the Caribbean Sea — is in a position to serve a key role in this undertaking.

Among units conducting rescue operations from MacDill is the 45th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron. They are medical professionals who train to bring home alive the nation's wounded service personnel — the soldiers, seamen, airmen and Marines injured in the line of duty. According to statistics cited by the Air Force, these patients have a 98 percent survival rate once they make it into the hands of an evacuation team.

The 45th squadron is putting its skills to work now rescuing civilians. As members of the nation's air reserve, they are mainly civilians themselves. More than 90 percent of the Air Force's aeromedical evacuation capability falls under the air reserve — part-time military members who deploy full-time when called upon.

A flight nurse or medical technician working with an evacuation team requires more than the once-a-month, two-weeks-a-year commitment made by typical reservists. It's more like two weekends a month, one for a local mission and one for a cross-country mission.

For one member of the 45th, Hurricane Maria hit close to home, reports the MacDill publication The Thunderbolt. Tech. Sgt. Maria Ayala has family in Puerto Rico and was relieved to hear from a cousin that her mother was okay. But Ayala went about her work helping in the rescue efforts not knowing yet about her father.

Among the skills that evacuation teams demonstrated while the Times accompanied them to St. Croix were resourcefulness and versatility, quickly converting a stubby, cavernous, four-prop C-130 Hercules cargo plane to stack in as many stretcher-bound and ambulatory patients as possible.

The teams are accustomed to setting up such flying ambulances, even hospitals, in a variety of aircraft — the C-130 and giant C-17 cargo planes, even a KC-135 Stratotanker refueling jet.

More tenants are coming to MacDill in the next two years with the arrival of 23 Black Hawk helicopters and some 150 personnel who are part of an Army medical evacuation regiment. They will join nearly 30 mission partners from all branches of the service who call the sprawling Air Force base home.

They include groups that run military operations in the Middle East, bring together top military commanders from our international allies, and guide the work of U.S. commandos around the world.

And, as its host community can now appreciate more, they include medical professionals whose training in the business of war is bringing a little peace to the victims of a devastating natural disaster.

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