7 years ago.
As I write that, I shake my head in disbelief. For many reasons, but mostly because the feelings after the events of that day, 4/19/2012, are still as real to me as if it happened yesterday. Though none of the emotions I felt were pleasant, I cherish them. I hold on to those feelings because they are a constant reminder of how precious and fragile life can be, and I remember you: CW2 Nicholas Johnson, CW2 Don Viray, SGT Dean Shaffer, and SGT Chris Workman.
We had been in theater less than 2 months at that point. Our detachment, which had joined with 2 other Medevac detachments to form one company , was stationed among 4 separate Forward Operating Bases (FOBs) in Helmand Province, Afghanistan. Our HQ was in Camp Dwyer, and we were split between FOB Delaram, FOB Edinburgh, and FOB Payne. Our mission was in support of the Marines, with our aircraft stationed in proximity to their camp and patrol routes. We were coined with the name 'Devildog Dustoff' for that was our true purpose. Each FOB had a STP (Shock Trauma Platoon), made up of Navy Doctors and Corpsman. This is where our flight teams would bring the casualties to stabilize.
Medical helicopters never flew anywhere by themselves, always having a close escort. That big red and white cross on the side of our helicopter meant that we couldn't have any weapons mounted, even for defensive purposes. We've heard it said that "no one would shoot down a medical evacuation team; it's a war crime" (cue eye roll).
UH-60 Blackhawk and AH-1W Cobra Attack helicopter on the flight line
These escorts would be conducted either by AH-1W Cobra Light Attack Helicopter or an Army Assault Company with UH-60 Blackhawks. At Camp Dwyer, the 2-25th AVN was our escort.
I had been at Delaram since we had first arrived in theater. I had only been on ground for a week or two, completing my hand-off flight and validating my medical skills by performing hands on trauma scenario-based exams to work independently. I was just getting accustomed to carrying my radio 24/7, and my adrenaline had calmed to the point that I didn't immediately start running to the Tactical Operations Center (TOC) every time I heard static or clicks across the radio.
For those unfamiliar with how Medevac works, when you are on duty and the 'Medevac, Medevac, Medevac' call comes across the radio (a memory of which sends chills still to this day), we have 15 minutes to be in flight, heading to that injured service member. On that particular evening, April 19th, it had been pretty uneventful for us. We had done some training with the STP earlier and had no assigned missions. I don't even remember what I was doing immediately prior, but I noticed some commotion in the TOC, and as I made my way over, I heard it...
Fallen Angel. A Medevac had gone down.
My first question, obviously, was who was it? For almost 20 minutes, either it wasn't known, or they weren't saying the callsign. As the rest of our team gathered in and around the TOC, someone said, 'They were out of Dwyer.' I think I blacked out... It's us...That's where my unit was...where my fiancé was. Wait, did I not mention that before? Yes, my fiancé at the time was deployed with me, in the same Medevac company...but that's a whole different story. It's hard to describe the feeling of nothing and everything.
I'd say first I felt nothing. My heart was in my throat and my stomach on the floor.
I couldn't talk, I couldn't think, I don't even know if I was breathing. He could be dead. The person who I wanted to spend my life with, may be gone. I dwelled on this single thought for quite some time. Eventually my mind began racing and I thought of everything. When I say everything, I mean, EVERYTHING. The firsts; kiss, hug, touch, fight, everything in between, and now possibly the lasts of everything...I paused. What did I last say to him? As I stood there in shock, I thought of it all. The remainder of the time I spent in denial. 'It can't be him. It's not. I would just know if he were gone, right?' I repeated to myself. I kept myself as busy as possible doing anything I could find, just to pass the time until we knew for sure.
Not many people knew about my relationship. We wanted it that way, and it made things easier in some aspects, but incredibly hard in others. This was one of those times. Hours passed and still we didn't have more information. None of us slept. It was a dark night, with zero illumination, making for dangerous flying weather. The second aircraft that had been on the same flight had circled the wreckage... a smoking, burning hole in the ground. Without knowing the cause of the accident, the chase aircraft did not remain on site long. The crash appeared non-survivable. The Medevac Commander at Delaram had a satellite phone, and I utilized it to make one call; home. I don't remember exactly what I left in the message, something along the lines of, 'I can't say much. I'm ok...I love you.' I knew the news coverage coming out would say "Helicopter crash in Afghanistan" and "no names are being released until next of kin are notified." I didn't want my family to worry about me. The internet and phone lines would be shut down for days for us as well.
Flight operations at night
Running Medevac missions allows you to get really good at compartmentalizing everything. Your personal opinions or disagreements or troubles no longer matter; when you get that Medevac call, everything else falls to the way-side. Your entire mind and body is focused on getting to that injured service member and saving their life. You have to stay focused on the mission, in turn, you tend to not deal with your emotions. When we found out the following day it was our Medevac escort, an Assault Company Blackhawk, relief washed over me. Then sadness and anger at myself for feeling relief towards someones death; just not my someone. Someone's husband. Father. Son. Brother. I harbor those feeling to this day. The reality of the mission, and everything that comes with it, hit home that day. The dangers we faced, yet still, fearlessly, answered every Medevac call. It's what DUSTOFF stands for; Dedicated Unhesitating Service To Our Fighting Force. We all made that commitment and would have taken that to our grave.
Gentleman: I remember you on this day, and any day when I start to feel overwhelmed or angry... You keep me in check. Though I never personally met you, you have made a lasting impact on me. You did not die in vain. Your support to the DUSTOFF mission was invaluable. You gave the ultimate sacrifice, and I cherish every day more because of it. I don't take a single thing I have for granted. If I'm impatient, or pissed off at the world, there is always a voice in my head reminding me every day is precious. To put things in perspective, and in the grand scheme of things, it likely doesn't really matter. Work hard for what you love, and a day will never be wasted. Never leave a conversation unhad, or an 'I love you' unsaid. Your memory lives on.
Written in loving memory of CW2 Johnson, CW2 Viray, Sgt Shaffer, and Sgt Workman.