Even 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.
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.