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Army medics and soldiers carry a wounded soldier onto an Air Force C-17 at Bagram Air Field in this Aug. 8, 2002, photo. Members from the Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron at Bagram quickly reconfigure the hold of the massive cargo plane into a flying hospital that will take wounded troops from the war zone to American hospitals in Europe and the United States.
If you're rushing around on this Christmas morning, rest assured that your task is neither as urgent nor as complicated as that of the Aeromedical Evacuation team at Bagram Air Field in Afghanistan. Bagram has grown with the war to become one of the world's largest cargo ports. But the cargo is delicate — wounded soldiers who are trying to get home in time for Christmas in what amounts to a flying hospital.
Air Force Capt. Blake Putnam, left, helps convert the massive hold of the C-17 plane from carrying cargo into a flying hospital.
Air Force Capt. Blake Putnam, left, helps convert the massive hold of the C-17 plane from carrying cargo into a flying hospital. Quil Lawrence/NPR
In the frigid moonlight, around 1 a.m., Master Sgt. William Goodman sets about turning a cargo plane into an intensive care unit at the edge of the landing strip at Bagram.
A tractor-trailer can fit inside the gaping hold of the C-17 cargo plane like this one, just back from Landstuhl, Germany, carrying 35,000 pounds of cargo on pallets. The crew, plus the ground staff of nurses, techs and pilots, all start by rolling the freight off.
"They gotta get all the cargo off to turn it into the hospital you're talking about," Goodman says.
Lt. Col. Dewey Darden is the commander of the Air Evac team, which brings out the hospital-in-a-box to set up inside the cavernous cargo hold.
"This is for a cargo plane," Darden says. "Did you see how fast we turn this into a hospital where you can take all the patients and litters? It didn't take long at all."
Next, they flip the heavy steel cargo rollers over into channels in the floor, leaving a flat, no-slip surface. Metal stanchions pop into holes in the deck to make two lines of hospital cots, three bunks high, the length of the hold.
The crew, one of them wearing a Santa cap, hangs oxygen lines and wires along the stretchers with care. It's all about getting patients home, says Darden.
"Back during Vietnam it used to take 40 days to get a patient back to the States," he says. "Now we can do it in three or four, from point of injury back to the States."
When the beds are ready, a bus from the hospital on the base pulls up. About a dozen volunteers have turned up, though it's now 2 a.m. Service men and women, as well as contractors, help move the wounded soldiers off the ambulance and up the gangway.
A few dozen ambulatory soldiers file along the sides of the hold and settle in for the eight-hour flight to Europe. Some of them will get further treatment at an American military hospital there; others may head quickly on to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.
Goodman says the team has sometimes done six of these conversions in a single day, sometimes with as many as five patients hooked up to ventilator machines to keep them breathing.
Video: Flying With The Army Medevacs
"We will haul whatever patient needs to get wherever they need to go, as soon and as fast as possible," Goodman says. "If they're not home, they'll be flying on Christmas Day. If there's a mission, it'll be there."
The most critical patients board last, so they can be the first off the plane. One is on a ventilator; a bomb took both his legs.
Lt. Col. Bridget Brozyna escorts the patients from the hospital.
"Unfortunately the defining injury of this war is the traumatic amputations, so we see them on a weekly basis, if not every other day," she says. "The thing that kills me is how young all these guys are, thinking about them going home and facing what they'll have to face."
But at least these young men and women will soon be facing those challenged alongside their families back home, perhaps some of them in time for Christmas.