Aboard U. S. Flying Hospital (part 2 of 2)

CaptJax

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The hospital in Germany

The plane landed at 8 on a bright, sunny morning. Landstuhl is a pretty little town in the Rhineland, houses with red roofs. It looks just like Mill Valley, except for the ruined castle. The church bells ring out the hours. It is a million miles from Afghanistan.
At the hospital, Capt. Erika Cisneros, 27, an Army nurse from Baldwin Park, a Los Angeles suburb, says patients are still scared when they get to Germany.
"The first thing we tell them is that they are safe. They are in Germany and they are going home. We listen. We give them as much time as they need to be angry or be sad. And we help them through it.
"We had a patient who was heavily sedated. He had come from Iraq. He woke up in the hospital. He kept asking me if he still had his legs. He wouldn't look. He wouldn't look down.
"He must have asked me 17 times, and I had to tell him every time he had lost his legs.
"That was a year ago. And I said to myself, 'Why do I keep doing this?' "
Cisneros answered her own question. "Because I can help."
The man in the neck brace who was put aboard the plane in Bagram is awake now. He is 2nd Lt. William Ortega, born in Colombia, lived in New York City, joined the Army in 1996, served as an enlisted man and then got a commission. He's been in the Army 12 years.
He was in a truck convoy in Afghanistan when an explosive device went off. He injured his neck and has burns on the side of his legs.
"I am a platoon leader," he says. "I want to be with my soldiers. We are close, close, like a brotherhood." He says his men - all from the 101st Airborne Division - are all very young. Ortega is 38. "They call me Grandpa. It is an honor to lead men like this."
Jacob Brittain, 21, a private first class in the Marines, was ready to go home, first to a hospital, then to Frankfort, Ind. A roadside bomb got him. His left heel was shattered. "Afghanistan is a dangerous place," he says. "You don't know who's who."
It took only 10 minutes for a helicopter to pick him up, which sounds fast. "It seemed like forever, it does. You are in a lot of pain."
He always wanted to be a Marine, he says. "Some people want to be an astronaut, or a fireman. I wanted to be a Marine."
Would he go back? "Absolutely, I am 100 percent sure."
It will take awhile, though. With luck and therapy, he thinks he can walk again in a year.
The Travis plane took off from Germany on Sunday afternoon bound west across the Atlantic for Andrews Air Force Base. This time there were 17 litter cases, eight ambulatory patients and five in critical condition.
One man had lost his left arm, another his right. One man's leg was shattered. Another had severe brain injuries. A team of critical care medical personnel hovered over them for the nine-hour flight to Andrews, which is near Walter Reed Hospital in Washington, D.C., and Bethesda Naval Hospital in Maryland.
The doctor

Critical-care doctor Chris Dunn, 56, is a colonel, who joined the Air Force Reserve when he was 50. He was too old to join, so he had to get a waiver. In his other life, he has a private practice in Redwood City and is on the staff at Sequoia Hospital there.
He has two sons who are Air Force pilots. "I wanted to help," he says, so he joined up with the 349th Air Mobility Wing at Travis.
Born and raised in Seattle, he went to Stanford as an undergraduate and to Stanford Medical School. The Vietnam War was on during his undergrad days; he registered for the draft but got such a high number he was never called.
He is tall, slim and fit, with gray hair. He has a lot of credentials. "But that is nothing compared to the honor and privilege of helping 18- to 25-year-olds who are the boots on the ground," he says.
For two months on this deployment, he has flown with the critically injured, a Sunday flight to Andrews in Maryland, Monday back to Germany. He has been across the Atlantic more times than he can remember, helping the patients westbound, sleeping on the floor of the plane eastbound. Sleeping on the floor doesn't bother him; he has backpacked in Yosemite and has a good air mattress.
His patients don't know him; they are critically ill - "in very bad shape," Dunn says. "You take them to a larger hospital where the technology and care will be good. Where they can be close to their families. We are one link in a chain of survival."
At Andrews, a crew of air men and women were on hand to take the litters off the plane. The man with the brain injury was flown by helicopter to Walter Reed.
The C-17 took off from Andrews AFB bound for California on Monday. From the cockpit, one could see the Washington Monument, the Capitol, all the sights.
The plane arrived back at Travis Monday afternoon.
"I see this as a mission to help people," said Lt. Col. Michael Casebeer, the pilot.
The mission had taken a week and C-17 No. 6162 had flown 40 hours in the air, 20,233 miles.

For more pictures and video from aboard the C-17 Air Force Globemaster, go to sfgate.com

Online resources

To see a video of the medical evacuation flight, go to sfgate.com.

E-mail Carl Nolte at cnolte@sfchronicle.com.
 
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