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Posted on Oct 13, 2006 in Front Page Features, Stuff We Like

Letters From Iraq 3: Life, Death, and Helicopters

By Russ Vaughn

At night when Blackhawks fly over, you do not hear them until they are almost directly overhead. You hear their distinctive turbine noise and the rotor blades cutting the air. The thap, thap, of the blades is substantially quieter than the deep whap, whap, of the old UH-1H Huey. As they cross outside the wire the birds turn off all lights. When the UH-60’s return across the wire their formation lights come back on.

The Apaches seem to be even quieter. When they leave post in pairs you know the enemy is going to have a very bad day. Sometimes they fly out in an almost leisurely pace. Other times you know they are on the warpath going full throttle and at very low altitude.

I was standing near the CSH (Combat Support Hospital), when I heard the high whine of the Blackhawk’s engine and the sound from its rotor blades. I saw the red formation light and watched the helicopter slow gracefully to a hover. The pitch of the engine and blade noise changed as the bird went into a hover and gracefully settled down to the landing pad 50 feet below. From behind HESCO barriers all I could see was the silhouettes of four soldiers running toward the helicopter. The crew chief stepped out of the bird. The four soldiers grabbed hold of something in the helo and gently pulled it out. I stepped closer to see what was going on. The soldiers were holding a litter. Quickly they pushed the 2 wheel casualty cart back toward the ER. The Blackhawk powered up and took off. Somewhere out there is a war going on.


October 2, 2006Marines prepare to hook an immobilized UH-60 Black Hawk to their CH-53E Super Stallion in Iraq’s Al Anbar Province. The Black Hawk was disabled during a routine training mission. This photo appeared on Marine Corps Cpl. James B. Hoke

We occasionally receive Iraqi civilians with wounds. Their families arrive at the check point desperate to find help. We take the injured in. An Iraqi woman with a gunshot wound to the head showed up at the front gate. They rushed her to the base hospital and began treating her (I do not know if she lived). The medics treat everyone the same. The medics do a lot and see way more than they should. A good medic is worth his or her weight and more in gold.

The night of July/31/August1 was a bad night on MSR Tampa. A large convoy was traveling near our base when an IED exploded. A medic traveling in one of the HUMMVEES was sleeping. It was his first convoy in four months. He apparently did not hear the blast. The guys he was riding with shook him awake and told him he had wounded to care for. The medic slightly confused having not heard the explosion ask where the casualty was. The TC told him just up ahead.

As the HUMMVEE arrived all they could see was a burning vehicle. When they pulled to a stop they could see it was a bus. The medic got out to see burnt bodies laid out everywhere on the road. He started treating them with the help of other soldiers. One by one the injured were loaded on other trucks and rushed here to COB Speicher.

The word reached the CSH that they had a MASCAS coming in. The duty sergeant ran through the tents waking people up. Some of the G.I.’s thought it was just another drill and were very slow responding. When the sergeant realized the guys were dragging butt he went back and yelled “THIS IS NOT A DRILL.” The medics started pouring out of the tents half dressed and trying to wake from their deep sleep.

The casualties began to arrive, overflowing the E.R. The medics started stabilizing people for transport to other facilities by air. Several were loaded out to other bases. The worst cases were then treated here. Three had burns over 90 percent of their bodies. It was just after 3 a.m. By 9 a.m. two had died and the third was hanging on by sheer will power. He was still alive when I did my security rounds at the hospital that afternoon. The medic’s were making him as comfortable as possible with morphine. They had no way to save him.

The men that died that night in the bus were Iraq Army soldiers. All 23 died. The other casualties were fellow Iraqi soldiers that left their vehicles to try to pull them to safety. Many had third degree burns on their hands, arms and faces. The Iraqi Army is respected by their people and more and more by American soldiers and marines. Many are proving to be brave and honorable. They risk not only their own lives but the lives of their families because they wear the uniform.

The majority of our soldiers feel this is a fight that is worth it. The more I see and hear the more I am convinced this is a good fight. The terrorists are evil men and even the regular insurgents see that. Some insurgent groups now actually hunt down and kill foreign terrorists. They have even asked the Iraqi government for help to kill these interlopers.

The insurgency has lost a lot of steam. They rarely attack us and when they do most but not all of the attacks are half hearted or totally incompetent, unlike the first part of the war (Bagdad and Anbar Provinces excepted). Some gangs, like Al-Sadr’s are nothing more than cheap hoods trying to gain power and prestige. In other places it is like fighting organized crime. The majority of the bad guys are really good at killing civilians and not much else. In about 90 percent of the provinces there are only 2 or 3 attacks a day.

The Iraqi people can make a go of this if given enough of a chance and they put their backs into it. They are starting to realize they need to step up and take responsibility for their future. The Iraqis have been telling us where to find weapons and IEDs. From May to June coalition forces found over 100 weapons caches and over 800 IEDs. All of the ordinance was safely destroyed. Slowly things are coming together. Nation building is not like ordering a hamburger it is more like aging a fine scotch, it takes time.

Well this is my first day off in 2 weeks and I have lots more to tell all of you. Be safe, I will write more later.

Russ Vaughn

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