The medevac flight of Bandage 33, from routine to dire emergency
By Ed Marek, editor
March 25, 2014
At the time, Senior Airman (SrA) Zachary J. Rhyner (shown here), USAF, was with ODA 3336 and the 201st Kandak when they went into a fight in Afghanistan’s Shok Valley. Ryner was a combat air controller deployed with this force. He was assigned to the 21st Special Tactics Squadron, USAF Special Operations Command, at Pope AFB, North Carolina and served as the primary terminal attack controller attached to special forces, known officially as the Joint Tactical Air Controller, the JTAC. He was what is known as a “battlefield airman.” Bruce Rolfsen, reporting for the Air Force Times, has said:
"The 'battlefield airmen' can parachute or infiltrate into enemy territory to set up drop zones, do air-traffic control or call in aircraft to shoot or drop bombs on the enemy. They often work on an Army Special Forces or Navy SEAL team and fight alongside soldiers and sailors while summoning Air Force firepower from overhead. The aircraft often are firing near 'friendly' forces on the ground."
On March 10, 2009, now SSgt. Zachary Rhyner, USAF, received the Air Force Cross from Michael B. Donley, Secretary of the Air Force (SecAF), in the presence of General Norton Schwarz, Chief of Staff, USAF (CSAF), at Pope AFB, North Carolina, adjacent to Ft. Bragg, for his role in employing air power to support the ODA 3336 special forces and their Afghan allies on April 6, 2008 in the Shok Valley fighting.
Rhyner’s story does not end here. Now TSgt. Zach Rhyner was back in Afghanistan in late March 2013, some five years after the An Shuk Valley battle. He was struck by gun fire in the leg during that battle, but recovered and returned to duty. One this tour, he was severely wounded on the battlefield in northern Afghanistan. He suffered extensive wounds, mind numbing wounds.
In its December 2013 edition, Air Force Magazine published a story entitled, “Life Flight.” about the crew that saved his life. It was not until the end of the story that the author, Amy McCullough, told us the mission of Bandage 33, an USAF C-130J and crew, saved TSgt Rhyner. The story is a real thriller. I thought I should paint the highlights for you.
The flight crew flying Bandage 33: (L-R) Airman 1st Class Anastasia McCorkle, Tech. Sgt. Brian Commodore, C-130J loadmasters, Capt. Eric Jones, co-pilot, and Capt. Ryan Thornton, the aircraft commander,
The medical crew aboard Bandage 33: (L-R) MSgt John Kiey, Capt. Adriana Valdez, SSgt Juan Williams, Lt. Col. Kathleen Sprague, and SrA Amanda Pena.
Bandage 33 was on a routine aeromedical evacuation flight in Afghanistan when it received the call to high-tail it over to Mazar-e-Sharif to get a high, priority-one patient. The call was urgent, but beyond that, the crew had little information, just that the patient suffered a gunshot wound. Sprague and Valdez were fight nurses, the others medical technicians.
A paratrooper had rescued Rhyner from the battlefield about four hours before Bandage 33 got there. The bullet entered Rhyner’s right femur and exited out through his butt. He had some surgery at Mazar but he needed advanced care to save his leg. The crew uploaded him and the skipper, Capt. Ryan Thornton, got her airborne. Communications with ground controllers was not good, and the skipper wanted to go directly to Bagram. The mission was a basic medial evacuation one, where the patients transported are in stable condition. Therefore, there was no doctor aboard and minimal supplies, with no blood. There were four patients aboard already, now with Rhyner five, but Rhyner was not stable.
Given that normal communications with controllers were so bad, the crew was lucky to have a new technology that could send “text-like” messages. The initial request to go directly to Bagram was denied given that the paperwork on the ground said everyone was stable. As Thornton gained altitude, Ryner’s condition began to deteriorate. Bloodpressure dropping, face pale, breathing fast. Sprague was with the patient and called for Valdez to come back there. Sprague explained the problems and told Valdez to go up front and tell the skipper.
Valdez did that and said:
“We need to go to Bagram. We can’t wait. Do what you need to do. Put the call out. Whatever you need to do. We need to declare an inflight emergency, because the patient is not doing well.”
Valdez would say later, “At that point we were worried about saving his leg and making sure he was hemodynamically stable," she said. "We knew he needed to go straight back to surgery to figure out why he was bleeding and that he needed to get to a higher level of care very quickly."
It turns out that when Valdez speaks, Thornton knew to react as instructed. He called her “bad ass!” Actually, Thornton would later laugh about that and inferred there was no fooling around wen Valdez was barking instructions --- the pilots knew she was for real. Actually, the pilots liked it because there was no question what they had to do when she told them.
The pilots informed ground control of the situation and received clearance to go directly to Bagram. The co-pilot, Capt Eric Jones, said, “We were gong full blast all the way there ... That’s the closest thing I think we’ll ever get to driving an ambulance. You call, ‘Urgent medevac’ over the radio and they part the Red Sea for you. All the traffic gets out of your way.”
Bandage 33 made a one hour 20 minute flight in 42 minutes!
The nurses tried to figure out why the bloodpressure was dropping, and discovered that he was bleeding badly even though his wounds had been sutured. The rise in altitude apparently caused them to rupture. Rhyner’s leg also began to swell. Valdez put pressure on the wound while the others gave him fluids and changed his oxygen. While Valdez held pressure on his thigh, she saw he was also bleeding from the back, so he was bleeding from entrance and exit wounds. Valdez kept talking to Rhyner, joking around as well as she could. The medical crew was very worried he would lose his leg.
Then the next problem arose. Bagram sits in a kind of bowl, surrounded by mountains, and Thornton was coming in full throttle. That meant he was going to have to descend rapidly and steeply. This kind of approach bounced everyone around in the back and the medical crew was having trouble holding pressure on the wounds. Valdez strapped herself in the litter with Rhyner and hung on for the bumpy ride down.
A patient is offloaded from a C-130J with the 772nd Expeditionary Airlift Squadron at Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, April 7, 2013. The aircraft is met by an ambulance which will take the patient to Craig Joint Theater Hospital. This is the same procedure that was used during the Aeromedical Evacuation mission to move critically wounded Zach Ryner.
Thornton brought his bird down safely and the base medical establishment from the Craig Joint Theater Hospital was standing on alert awaiting their patient. His bloodporessure rose, but the leg remained badly swollen, and the crew could not find a pulse in his foot. Valdez kept the pressure on his wound and walked to the ER with him and the ER staff. Mission complete, the patient turned over to the hospital ER, so Valdez returned to the aircraft, they relaunched and flew another six hours.
She did not know who her patient was. She had been invited to an Air Force Association Conference attended by the CSAF, General Welsh, USAF, and he told her what a hero Rhyner was, a recipient of the Air Force Cross for saving his 10-man special operations team in a difficult ambush back in 2008. Welsh called her to the stage and she had tears in her eyes. Welsh said:
“Adriana, let me introduce him to you. He’s an Air Force hero. He couldn’t be here today, but he asked me today to thank you. I’ll give you his e-mail. Thanks for saving our guy.”
Rhyner survived, kept his leg, but has had several surgeries and spent a lot of time in therapy. When the bullet hit is hip, it transacted his sciatic nerve and broke his femoral neck, the piece of nine that connects the femur to the ball of his hip. He remains on active duty at this writing.