When I was in High School, I worked summers as a lifeguard at the community swimming pool in my rural northern California town. My boss, a guy named Craig, was a former student of my father’s (the local high school social studies teacher).
Sometimes, Craig’s son Josh used to come to work with his dad, along with his younger brother and sister. Today, Staff Sgt. Joshua Keyes, 30, is a Para-rescueman or “PJ”, (Para-jumper). He keeps lookout aboard a HH-60 G, “Pave Hawk”, helicopter, of the 55th Expeditionary Rescue Squadron, United States Air Force (USAF). In the photo above, Sgt. Keyes provides medical care to a battlefield casualty, Saturday, October 24, 2009, in Kandahar Province, Afghanistan.
The war in Afghanistan comes home. This is a kid who spent long summer days ogling tanned local girls, a kid who I used to blow my whistle at for running along the edge of the pool. Today, he saves lives in the most dangerous place on earth.
It “was a pretty bad day,” said Maj. Ben Conde, from Denver, who flew the missions to rescue the 17 injured troops and bring home the two killed in action. “It was a day we never wish would happen again.”
“These aren’t numbers, these are our family, our brothers, sisters, husbands, wives and children,” said Pararescueman Vincent Eckert, from Tucson, Ariz. “We’ve kind of become a jack of all trades. These are the things we do so that others may live. We’re not bomb droppers – our mission is to save lives.”
The members of the squadron are called pararescuemen or parajumpers – PJs. All are trained trauma medical technicians who can perform battlefield surgery – including amputations – under enemy fire.
If necessary, the PJs parachute to their victims. Trained to work in almost any weather, they are physically fit enough to perform rescues deep underwater or high in the mountains.
During the Vietnam War, PJs recovered downed pilots in enemy territory and developed a tradition of getting two green feet tattooed on their bodies, representing the mark the helicopters leave on the ground.
In Afghanistan, the group rescues troops, brings sick Afghans from remote locations to big field hospitals and helps others in need of medical treatment.
On Saturday, members of one unit lingered after finishing a shift. Some worked out in a makeshift outdoor gym, while a second shift prepared for the long night ahead.
Senior Master Sgt. David Swan, 42, from Corning, N.Y., and Staff Sgt. Joshua Keyes, 30, of Alturas, Calif., rushed to a wounded soldier without hesitation. The soldier, nestled in the litter, was stabilized on the helicopter by the medical team.
The helicopters flew back to Kandahar Air Field’s trauma hospital.
The soldier, although severely wounded, survived. The Washington Times is withholding his name until his relatives can be notified.
A second flight was even more difficult. The rescue unit was flying back to retrieve the remains of a dead soldier, whose name The Times is also withholding.
The squadron placed the young man’s remains in a small black bag, carried the bag on board the chopper and draped it with a U.S. flag, then lifted off from the highway where he had taken his last breath. There was silence on the flight back.
From the sky, the villages and farmland looked benign, even beautiful. Some Pashtun villagers circled the area where the convoy was struck. A small group cheered as the body was loaded onto the craft. Others watched silently.
“It never gets easy,” said Master Sgt. Swan, after the group had returned back to base. “This past month has been hard on our troops. We do our job and we never leave anyone – not anyone behind.”
In the photo above, Joah and Senior Master Sgt. David Swan, 42, Corning, N.Y., drape an American flag over a body bag containing the remains of a dead U.S. soldier being transported from the battlefield.
My Dad spoke with Josh’s dad the other day, who wept as he told him that Josh was to be featured in a Washington Times article. My old boss Craig wept for his 30 year old son, wondering how these experiences will affect him. The possibility that Josh may never come home, that he’ll become yet another casualty in a war that fewer and fewer Americans support, went unspoken.
For the time being, all we can do is wonder and worry. Sgt. Keyes doesn’t have much time for either of those luxuries:
Far from winding down, the numbers of wounded U.S. soldiers coming home have continued to swell. The problem is especially acute among those who fought in Afghanistan, where nearly four times as many troops were injured in October as a year ago.
Amputations, burns, brain injuries and shrapnel wounds proliferate in Afghanistan, due mostly to crude, increasingly potent improvised bombs targeting U.S. forces. Others are hit by snipers’ bullets or mortar rounds.
With Veterans Day on Wednesday, wounded veterans from the recent conflicts consider the toll of these injuries, and the rough road ahead for the injured. Of particular concern are the so-called hidden wounds, traumatic brain injuries and post-traumatic stress disorder that can have side effects such as irritability and depression.
In Afghanistan, spinal injuries have increased significantly, due mostly to the powerful explosives used in the improvised bombs that rattle U.S. troops inside heavily armored vehicles. For those injured by these bombs, recovery can mean a year or more at a military medical hospital like Walter Reed Army Medical Center, followed by months, years or even a lifetime of therapy and coping with disability.
At least 1,800 troops were wounded in Afghanistan in the first 10 months of this year, about 40 percent of all the wounded U.S. troops in Afghanistan since the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks. Nearly 1,000 of those injuries occurred in the last three months.
In Iraq, more than 600 troops have been wounded so far this year.
During a lull in his shift, Josh looks at a picture of his wife Catherine and daughter Amberlyn who await his return home.
This is a whole generation of Americans, scarred both inside and out, by violent conflict. I hope we know what we’re doing there, and that President Obama will do all that he can to get these brave men and women out of harm’s way as soon as possible.