Medevac pilot risks life to save others; Army air ambulance helps soldiers, Iraqis


Jeanette DeForge | | Thursday, June 28, 2007

NATIONAL Almost daily, Lt. Matthew Partyka flies into the most dangerous spots in Iraq to pick up someone who has been shot or injured in an accident.

There is always the threat of enemy fire and explosions from homemade weapons, but it is the landings that make the job exceptionally dangerous.

"At our most critical point, we are going out to where the patient is. . . . The wind from the helicopter is kicking up a lot of sand and we lose sight of the landing spot," said Partyka during a telephone interview from Iraq.

Partyka, 25, of Chicopee, Mass., is a pilot with the Army's 45th Medical Company. He's been stationed in Al-Asad, Iraq, since January and expects to be there for a year. He runs the equivalent of an emergency air ambulance with a crew of three other soldiers.

"It is inherently dangerous," he said. "We are flying in to help people who are hurt, and it is usually caused by interaction with the enemy."

The lieutenant, who pilots UH-60 Black Hawk helicopters, also serves as assistant operations officer for his company. Occasionally, he makes the decision as to whether his crew will fly to pick up an injured person.

He compares his unit's operation to that of a civilian fire department. Several four-member crews of soldiers work 72-hour shifts at a location and wait for a dispatch from higher headquarters to pick up a patient. Each crew consists of two pilots, a medic and a crew chief.

For security reasons, Partyka could not reveal many details of his job. But he did explain the basics:

The call for help typically comes from a military unit on the ground and then is screened through different channels before one of the on-duty groups is dispatched to fly in and help, he said.

"We help anyone who falls under U.S. protection, basically," he said.

While American troops from all branches of the military are those most frequently assisted, Partyka said his squad also helps Iraqi citizens and allies from other countries.

"A good percentage of the people we help are Iraqis. My first medevac mission picking up a patient was an Iraqi kid who was about 14," he said.

His medevac, or medical evacuation, unit can also be dispatched to transfer a patient from one hospital to another for further treatment.

There are multiple medevac groups working from the same base. There have been a few shifts where his group has not received any calls, but usually all the crews are very busy, he said.

When a crew gets a call, one member records the information: the name of the unit requesting help, urgency of the call, location of the patient, the destination hospital, the name of the patient and the nature of the injuries. Meanwhile, the other crew members run to the helicopter, which is parked about 200 feet from the building, and prepare for the flight, Partyka said.

Calls vary. Right now, with temperatures reaching more than 100 degrees, there are heat-related casualties. Sometimes there are motor vehicle or construction-related accidents, he said.

"The most serious ones are caused by enemy action," he said, adding that these can include explosions from homemade bombs.

Dispatchers give the pilots as much information as they can about the situation, but they do not always know, Partyka said.

Because they are on a medical mission, the crews only carry weapons to defend themselves. The Black Hawk helicopters are also marked so anyone can identify them as noncombatant.

When the helicopter reaches its destination, the pilot and crew search for the best landing spot. Partyka said he has landed on soccer fields, roads, on the tops of mountains and often in patches of dirt.

The medic leaves to tend to the patients and prepare them for flight. Because the pilots cannot leave the helicopter, the troops on the ground help the medic prepare to move any patients, Partyka said.

Then the crew flies to the nearest appropriate medical facility. One of the key differences between his group and others who transport is that the medevac units provide medical care from the time they arrive to the time they reach the hospital, he said.

Partyka said he dislikes being in Iraq, but, unlike many of his fellow soldiers, he doesn't hate it.

"I like the job," he said. "I can't say I hate it. I like the mission."

Partyka said he knows he is putting his life at risk. The job, at times, can be very stressful; sometimes he feels cooped up as he and the crew are discouraged from leaving the helicopter base. But Partyka likes that the calls are entirely random and he never knows what type of situation he will see.

"A great part of it is helping people," he said.

Being a pilot is something Partyka talked about since he was 10 years old. After he graduated from Chicopee High School in 2000, he went to Norwich University in Vermont and entered the Army after receiving his bachelor's degree in 2004, said his mother, Cynthia.

"He has always wanted to fly. He would go to Westover (Air Reserve Base) days before the air show would start so he could watch the planes come in," she said.

Partyka has been stationed in South Korea and was based in Germany when his company was reassigned to Iraq.

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