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Angels of the Sky

On the 7th of June 2010, the day Afghanistan overtook Vietnam to become the longest war in US history, ten NATO soldiers including seven Americans were killed. One of those was 21-year-old US Army Soldier Brendan Neenan. Pilots and medics from Charlie Company, Sixth Battalion, 101st Aviation Regiment had risked their lives to save him. 'There were six casualty alpha (highest priority) patients and sadly we lost ours,' explained Captain Fine, the pilot on the mission.

Losing Neenan hung heavily on the crew of that mission but the five other critical patients whose lives they may have saved will remember the day the air-angels, as the rescue crews are affectionately known, rescued them. Two days later, a US Air Force helicopter on a similar rescue mission was shot down over Helmand Province, killing four of those on board. These are the risks that the airborne medical-evacuation (medevac) rescue teams take.

There are always two crews on duty: First Up and Second Up. When a call comes in over the radio the First Up crew will run to the nearby helicopter and be in the air within ten minutes with a heavily armed support helicopter following them for security.

They will either land on the battlefield and pick up wounded soldiers in dangerous or 'hot' landing zones, where they often come under fire from enemy who are offered financial incentives to bring down coalition helicopters, or they will land in small bases where the patient has already been transferred. Most of the crew are veterans of multiple tours in Iraq and Afghanistan and I was impressed by their remarkable calmness in the face of the dangers and pressures that they face.

In the two weeks I spent with Charlie Company I flew on countless missions. In some cases they were extracting wounded soldiers from the battlefield but most of the missions involved picking up Afghan civilians who were injured in fighting or roadside bombs and would not have survived if they had been left to the under-resourced local health service. Without the bravery and commitment of these soldiers, the casualty statistics from America's longest war would be considerably higher.
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