The losses do get to you

Tamara Long-ArchuletaEven though the losses in the Long War have been far fewer than any other major conflict, each one stings. It makes it almost impossible to understand the bolus of grief that must have hardened the hearts of the world in 1918, 1945 and in many nations at similar times. (Even prehistoric societies must have known this feeling).

Call us sexist pigs, but just like the kids who are native to the combat zone get to you, the losses of women get to you. We may have lost thousands of fine men, but we’ve lost scores, (hundreds?), of fine women, many of them wives and moms, just serving like the guys do.

One of those happened on our watch, sort of. Like a lot of us, she came from a military family.

It was a bleak spring day in the Hindu Kush and all but one of the medical officers who came out for a MEDRETE (where we build rapport by treating the locals’ illnesses) had gone back. One great doc was an extra back in the rear, and enjoyed his time in the guard rotation and on patrols with us. We made him pay for his “vacation” by teaching advanced techniques to our medics: everybody wins, except for the docs back in the rear who wanted another guy to rotate in and cover the sick-call clinic. They’d survive.

Forgive us, Lord, but we weren’t very worried about the emotional state of the docs, or anyone else, back at Bagram or K2.

We weren’t supposed to treat the locals’ ills, and got periodic rockets from the bureaucratic elements of Coalition Joint Task Force 180, the local representatives of Big Green bureaucracy, on the subject. Some underemployed lawyer was complaining that we used medical supplies bought by Title 10 DOD funds to treat foreigners. We needed bandages, antibiotics, and Ringer’s Lactate bought from some other bucket of money, which we didn’t have, and CJTF-180 wasn;t going to give us, either.

We asked if we should just let the Afghans die, and the CJTF 180 lawyer said. “yes,” which is pretty much all you need to know about the character of people who become lawyers these days. And we were in big trouble, he warned us, if we treated any more old Afghan men or kids, or medevaced them.  It was a waste of his precious bodily fluids our irreplaceable medevac resources.

We even tried to comply with this heartless, shortsighted diktat. We had a guy who was brought in with his abdomen open and his intestines out, over a marriage-contract dispute (not a rare thing in tribal Afghanistan) that went to edged weapons (ditto. That this was a friendly dispute kept it from being resolved with AKs and RPGs). Our docs stabilized him, gave him some antibiotics and pain meds (if the jitbag lawyer is reading this, we’re pretty sure the statute of repose immunizes us at this remove of time).  And we put him on a Toyota minivan taxi to Bamian, 8 hour of the worst roads in the world away. We expected him to die, despite the abilities of the NGO hospital, but we underestimated his toughness.

The knife-wielding brothers of the runaway bride ran away to Pakistan and probably joined the Taliban. If so, they’re probably dead now. And the jilted suitor is still tending his herd and farming his plot.

But that day, family members brought in a guy whose situation was cut and dried. He needed surgical intervention — and we couldn’t really do proper surgery here, despite the medical skillz of our hooky-playing surgeon. We didn’t have sterile conditions, we didn’t have life support equipment. This guy needed a hospital. The NGO guys, whose salvation of the stabbing victim had raised them two notches in our esteem, were called and our doctor and their doctors talked intense doctor stuff for a while.

And then we called a medevac for the man. To hell with CJTF-180 and its plush-bottomed lawyers.

We think it was Bushmaster w/sfxs, the call sign for the theater Combat Control honcho that told us an Air Force Pave Hawk helicopter, Komodo 11, with a Pave Hawk wingman, was going to come for him that night. We remonstrated: we were in really, really crappy helicopter terrain, at about 7000-9000 feet above sea level and surrounded by 14,000 to 18,000 foot rocks. They told us the crew could handle it. Piece of cake.

A while later they called and told us that Komodo 11 had diverted to another A-camp or safe house that had another, even more critically ill Afghan. In fact, they had two sick kids to collect. But there would be no rescue that night. They hit am MC-130 tanker for fuel, and the wingman, tanking himself, had lost sight of 11, which hadn’t reported in afterward. Had they come to us?

Negative. We called our higher who called all our call signs — all the SF in northern and eastern Afghanistan. No joy.

We’re not sure why we got that query, because there had never been any question of what happened to 11. The other Komodo callsign saw the results of the crash, if not the actual moment of impact or the aircraft’s flight path before ground contact. In a standard maneuver after disconnecting from the tanker, the crew of Komodo 11 flew into a mountainside at cruise speed. No survivors. Pilots and air-safety folks call it CFIT, Controlled Flight Into Terrain, and it’s usually the result of a loss of situational awareness, but nobody who was on the doomed Pave Hawk was able to tell us.

It was only after leaving the field that we learned the names of the crew, and it seemed particularly tragic that one of the pilots who risked their lives and their crew’s to save some Afghan that could never even have thanked them was a woman, 1st Lieut. Tamara Archuleta (as initial reports had her name). Sure, the losses of the guys were every bit as tragic, but it’s the women that get to you.

A retired Air Force officer who thought a lot about medical evacuation, even though he was an Air Force cop, Van Harl, wrote a moving piece about 1st. Lt. (Captain promotable) Long-Archuleta, who came from an Air Force family (her uncle had been a PJ).

Everybody thinks their child is special–but Captain Tammy was. She was a world class Karate champion. Distinguish college graduate, an Air Force officer & rescue pilot and a mother. She was supposed to be leaving Afghanistan in a few weeks and come home to be married. She had wanted to be a rescue pilot since she was a little girl. She even developed a board game in school called “Rescue Princess.” But this game was different, the Princess went out and risked her life to save, not be saved. This was what she was doing on her last mission, trying to rescue two injured Afghan children. She wanted to be a career Air Force officer and most likely would not be home in New Mexico for Christmas this year if she was still on active duty.

via She Will Never Be Home For Christmas.

Oh yeah.

While the loss of this young woman has a particular sting, the entire crew of Komodo 11 deserves to be remembered:

Lt. Col. John Stein, aircraft commander

1st Lt. Tamara Archuleta, co-pilot

Master Sgt. Michael Maltz, pararescueman

Staff Sgt. Jason Hicks, flight engineer

Staff Sgt. John Teal, flight engineer

Senior Airman Jason Plite, pararescueman.

Not sure how the Air Force works this, but the aircrew were from one squadron and the PJs from another. There is a memorial page to the tragic heroes of Komodo 11 on the net. For all we know, this is not the only one.

By the way, we did hear from the CJTF-180 lawyer. He accused us of killing that aircrew “for nothing.”  But we did medevac our Afghan patient. and more besides him. (Most of them got well. Some were beyond earthly intervention). We got hell for it, the medevac crews got hell for it, and the doctors and nurses in the combat support hospital got hell for it.

To the extent some guy sitting behind the wire writing memos could give us hell.

4 thoughts on “The losses do get to you

  1. Medic09

    RIP. Thank you for posting this. I never would have seen Major Harl’s essay. I’m going to bring it in to work. I’m sure it will touch my colleagues as it did me, since it is a memorial to a local girl and hero. You’re right – for some reason the women casualties get to us differently. I guess we are sexists (my wife would probably say so) – but I don’t see wives and mothers as naturally destined for the business of war. Certainly not to die alongside us. But I am certainly grateful for those who find their place there, and serve like anyone else. This also effects me because in my old age I still fly civilian air medical transports (just across the way from Kirtland AFB), and many of us are military people. So we are bound to identify with the motivators that daily sent these brave people out into the unknown to rescue comrades-at-arms and locals alike. We lost one of our civilian aircraft to a CFIT into the mountains outside San Diego after dropping off a patient. Some of that sadness remains in a distant corner of the heart forever, whether the crew was military or civilian.

    BTW, I was really surprised to read how you all were formally forbidden to treat and evacuate locals. What the hell happened to ‘hearts and minds’. What’s better than plain old humanitarian compassion and care. As for an excuse, it is good experience for the medics to treat civilians who often present with different illnesses and injuries (especially children, women, and old folks) than our typically young, athletic population with penchant for acute onset lead poisoning. Somebody really missed that call.

    When we were in south Lebanon in the 80s, our little outpost was supplied by the IDF with pediatric and female care supplies. Since our presence couldn’t really be hidden anyway, someone figured we might as well serve the locals if we can. Of course, nearly everyone stayed away – but the idea was there, anyway. I always thought we learned the idea from the US SF guys, since we didn’t usually do that stuff on strictly military missions.

    Thanks again for this post. It will mean a lot to my colleagues.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Israel has SF-like capabilities, both within and outside the IDF (think training teams in Latin America in the 80s and advisors with the Kurdish Pesh Merga in the 1970s respectively) but with the closing off of so many bilateral relationships it’s got to be tough for them to deploy them. I don’t think a small and hard-pressed nation can make it a full branch in their small and hard-pressed military….

      In USSF the medics are trained to deal with chronic disease, malnutrition, etc. A typical SF medic in 1st, 3rd or 7th Group (or their Guard peers 19th and 20th) will see diseases a first world physician forgets about after exams in med school. The other SOF medics concentrate in other areas… everybody gets trauma, but PJs get high altitude physiology, SEALs get dive medical technician/supervisor training, etc. An SF medic might really have to treat cholera or typhus, the others not. (In fact, he may have to do the epidemiology to find the source and localize the outbreak).

  2. Major Van Harl USAF Ret

    (The following was posted the date Capt. Tammy was buried.)

    “The Handcart Boys”
    Yesterday was a sad day. I attended the funeral of 1LT. Tamara Long-Archuleta USAF. She was the copilot of an Air Force HH-60G rescue helicopter that went down in Afghanistan during a rescue mission. There were six aircrew members killed. In this message is a poem “the handcart boys.” It was written a few days before 1Lt. Long-Archuleta was killed, but a lot of what happened on that mission is directly related in the body of the poem.

    I sent the poem to the minister that conducted the service for 1Lt. Long-Archuleta and asked him, if he felt the poem was appropriate, to please pass it on to the Long family. Yesterday to my surprise the poem was used in the eulogy.

    It is becoming very apparent that we can no longer engage in conflict without special ops and helicopters. The helicopter used in rescue, is the modern-day “handcart.” The handcart is how; down through history the dead and wounded were removed from the battle field. Look at the case of PFC. Jessica Lynch and her rescue. It was the “handcart boys” who went in and got her out safely.

    In the Army, artillery is known as the king of the battlefield, infantry is the queen of the battlefield but I would say that helicopter special ops and rescue are the Prince and in case of 1LT. Long-Archuleta the Princess of the battlefield.

    We just cannot do it without helicopters. Think about it, when Marine One lands on the White House lawn.

    It was a sad day yesterday with the loss of 1Lt. Long-Archuleta but it was also a wonderful day because the very mission she believed in and gave her life for, “the handcart boys/girls” safely rescued a fellow military member. There will be one less funeral this week because of the “handcart boys.”

    Major Van E. Harl USAF Ret.

    “The Handcart boys”

    He’s lying in the tree line, blood running down his arm.
    Listening for the sound of the Handcart boys, to remove him from this harm.
    He flew in on a modern jet that got shot down in this affray.
    But he is no different than the wounded at Shiloh, trying to survive, till they safely take him away.

    In the dark of the night she waits with so much pain to bear.
    Injured in the crash of her aircraft and now this seemly endless nightmare.
    Where is the chopper that will lift her from the smoke, the fire and the pain?
    Where are the Handcart boys, hurry, her life is beginning to drain?

    He was wounded when a round slammed onto the “cruiser’s” deck.
    Shards of metal are protruding from his arm, shoulder and the right side of his neck.
    The corpsman has stopped the bleeding; he’s been prepared, to be extracted in the night.
    The Handcart boys are racing his way, and will be there before first light.

    Get in, get them out, and hurry back, inside the safety of our lines.
    It has been this way since ancient wars, to the battles of modern times.
    The two-wheel Handcart is the way the wounded were removed from battles in past wars.
    Our modern Handcart has a rotor-blade and sliding doors.

    Look at history, look at artwork, recent photos or at movies if you will.
    When it came to removing the wounded and injured off of some war torn desolate hill.
    It was a Handcart carrying the broken and the dying with their screams of pain.
    It was a Handcart transporting at Normandy in the cold June rain.

    Every branch of the service has its modern version of the Handcart boys who respond to the call.
    They go out for the wounded and dead, bring them back, get them all.
    Some times the Handcart boys are brought back in a Handcart not of their own.
    Some times they become the wounded & the dying, and for their efforts, they never come home.

    There are also women who work these, latter-day Handcarts and their lives too, are on the line.
    It is a dangerous mission, but just as their predecessors they to make that recovery in time.
    They move out over the desert, into the night as the sand blows and swirls.
    These Handcart operators are our Handcart girls.

    I have a two-wheeled wooden handcart with an old worn flag sitting out on my front lawn.
    It is not a protest, it’s a reminder of our dead, who returned by Handcart, lying there upon.
    In order to defend this Nation, we will continue to send the brave & young, our freedom they earn.
    And we will always have a need for the Handcarts, for our wounded and dead, they must return.

    Major Van E. Harl, USAF Ret.

    1. Hognose Post author

      Thanks for the comment, Van. As you probably saw, it was your post on Lt. Long-Archuleta that inspired ours. That was a pretty bad day. And the war was just starting up again. Not long afterwards, a 7th Group team left a small shura and was ambushed with 2 KIA and several wounded. One of the KIAs was a Group guy and one was an Air Force TAC/P. There was some dispute on the frequency over whether they would medevac the wounded and dead, or whether they would use the available escort aircraft to support a combat assault to try to catch the enemy. There were not enough escorts available to do both. The decision to run the medevac was made by LTG Dan McNeill, and every ground combat guy listening became a fan of his at that point (we even felt bad about stealing his generators and HMMWVs, which is a long story). The helicopters came and no more men died that day

      Knowing that someone will come for you or your buddies if wounded is a bit like heat-treating your combat morale. It makes it tougher and stronger.

      It had been a long time without a KIA for SF but we definitely felt the loss of Komodo 11. You can’t imagine how crummy the terrain is — for ground combat or air operations — until you’ve seen it.

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