BALAD AIR BASE, Iraq -- Since the beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom the people of Iraq have celebrated many firsts on their way to re-establishing and maintaining their government and military forces.
May 14 marked another significant event when the Iraqi air force flew its first medical evacuation mission.
The crew consisted of an Iraqi pilot, flight medic and aerial gunner, each with a U.S. military counterpart. The crew transported their first patient, an Iraqi man, from the Air Force Theater Hospital at Balad Air Base to the U.S. Army's 86th Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad.
"This is the first [medevac] mission in the history of the Iraqi air force," said Lt. Amar, an Iraqi flight medic instructor. "I hope to succeed in this mission to serve my country. This is good training."
Before flying the medevac mission, the crew, flying an Iraqi air force Huey II helicopter, trained with Airmen from the AFTH's Contingency Aeromedical Staging Facility and Soldiers from the 86th CSH on how to on and off load patients.
Currently, U.S. servicemembers transport all the Iraqi patients via U.S. aircraft arriving and departing from the hospital, said Staff Sgt. Jason Stroude, a 332nd Expeditionary Medical Support Squadron helicopter pad boss deployed from Lackland Air Force Base, Texas, but changes are ahead.
"Eventually [the Iraqis will] be able to move their patients anywhere in the theater since there are more Iraqi hospitals than [U.S. military] hospitals," Sergeant Stroude said.
Additionally the Iraqis will be able to transport patients quickly to facilities that are closer to where they were injured, Sergeant Stroude said.
The patient who was moved during the medevac mission was Ali Hamad, a 27-year-old married farmer from Baghdad, who had suffered severe injuries to his face and eyes from an improvised explosive device detonation and had undergone several surgeries at the AFTH.
Mr. Hamad said, via a translator, this was his fourth visit to the AFTH for treatment and he would require at least one more surgery. His latest surgery was to insert a fat pad, grafted from his side, in his eye socket to lift the eyeball up as the first step for prepare for the emplacement of a prosthetic eye.
Once Mr. Hamad returns home, he said he will be able to do light farming duties.
The mission to move Mr. Hamad back to Baghdad allowed the Iraqi medics and crew to practice their skills with patients.
"We have two graduates now implemented in the medevac system and this is an exercise in the process of patient movement," said Army Sgt. 1st Class James Reid, a flight medic by trade, assigned to Coalition Air Forces Transition Team-Air Force Training School as an instructor/coordinator. "They'll move the patients from here to Ibn Sina [an Iraqi hospital in the Green Zone, primarily manned by rotating U.S. Army combat support hospital units] and in the future they'll move patients from here to Medical City [Iraqi civilian hospitals] in Baghdad."
The patient loading training before the medevac mission also served as a lesson to help Airmen assigned to the CASF in helping their Iraqi counterparts be successful in their future missions.
"The Air Force medics are mediators to move the patient for the ambulance crew," Sergeant Reid said. "We want make sure they're confident and oriented to move around the aircraft because it's not like a Blackhawk [the aircraft flown by U.S. Army medics.]"
"We're used to working on Air Force or Army helicopters," Sergeant Stroude said. "Their [the Iraqis'] set-up is a little bit different and getting the patients on and off the aircraft is a little bit different. We're getting tips from them as well as sharing information we have from the hospital as far as on-loading and off-loading patients."
The U.S. Airmen and Soldiers take pride in the accomplishments of their coalition brethren.
"This is big for me," Sergeant Reid said. "I'm not flying combat missions, so this is the next best thing -- to have an impact on the medical health services of Iraq. It's just one facet of them becoming self-sufficient as country."
"I think it's fantastic," Sergeant Stroude said. "The more they're able to do on their own to take care of their own people and take them from wherever they are to the nearest hospital as fast as possible, it's ultimately going to save the patient's life."
As a member of the Awakening group, a group of Iraqi citizens who help the Iraqi army and police patrol the neighborhoods, Mr. Hamad is happy and proud to see the progress the Iraqi air force is making toward becoming self-sufficient in their medevac missions.
"It's natural to feel happy that my country is taking over the job now," Mr. Hamad said. "I feel happy because they [Iraqis] will be able to understand me when I talk to them and I can talk to them directly without a translator. I am very happy to be the first to fly on an Iraqi [medevac] helicopter.'"