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167th's mission of mercy

December 05, 2003|by CANDICE BOSELY

martinsburg@herald-mail.com

Master Sgt. Peppy Smith of the 167th Airlift Wing's Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron was awakened during the first night of his most recent mission when an explosion rocked his bunk.

"I knew I wasn't in Hagerstown anymore," Smith said while recalling the night of July 12, which happened to be his birthday.

Smith, 41, of Hagerstown, was one of eight medical crew members who participated in a discussion Thursday about what they experienced during the nearly four months the group spent in Baghdad.

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Maj. Harry "Keith" Fletcher Jr., a flight nurse from Charleston, W.Va., held a PowerPoint presentation, showing both serious and lighthearted pictures taken while the group was stationed overseas.

Twenty-six members of the medical squad landed in Baghdad on July 12. They left for home on Nov. 7.

Before that, 11 members of the unit spent time in Tabuk, Saudi Arabia. Three members of the unit went to Afghanistan.

Members of the 167th treated patients who had been injured and then flew them to a more advanced medical clinic in Germany. They tried to keep patients no longer than six hours.

Common injuries included those caused by rocket-propelled grenades and improvised explosive devices - homemade bombs, the medical crew members agreed. Usually, medics were told in advance when to expect patients, but sometimes helicopters showed up with wounded people whose "raw" injuries had not been treated, Smith said.

"Our biggest concern was to get them somewhere where they could get treatment," Smith said.

If crews were told to be on alert for injuries caused by a mass casualty incident, they would rush to watch the news to see what had happened, Fletcher said.

Along with war-related injuries, members of the 167th also treated noncombat ailments, such as kidney stones, cardiac problems and common illnesses.

Smith said he once treated a civilian contractor whose leg was blown off when the Humvee in which he was riding was hit by a rocket-propelled grenade. All the others in the Humvee died.

"It tore my heart," Smith said of that particular patient. "He had so much strength."

In another instance, crews treated a soldier who had thrown a sandbag onto one of the homemade bombs. He lost his hand, but nobody else was injured, Smith said.

In Baghdad, Smith said, he worked the day shift, from 7 a.m. to 7 p.m. He said he usually woke up every morning at around 4:30 and read his Bible.

In civilian life, Smith is a high school teacher at Gateway Christian Academy. A member of the West Virginia Air National Guard for 17 years, he said he might volunteer for a short 30- or 60-day mission this summer.

As a medical technician, Smith took patients' vital signs, administered another IV bag if needed and gave patients additional medication through an IV if they needed it, he said.

Care was not limited to U.S. soldiers. After the United Nations building was bombed, unit members treated Iraqi and American civilians and people from France, Britain and Australia.

Smith said he treated more than 1,000 patients while in Baghdad. He said he does not believe any died while in the 167th's care.

Life outside of work consisted of playing sports and sightseeing. Several photos during the presentation depicted Air Guard members inside Saddam Hussein's crumbled palaces.

In July and August, temperatures were in excess of 100 degrees, Smith said.

When the temperatures fell to 80 or 90 degrees in September and October, the change prompted some to wear long underwear and huddle under blankets, Guard members said.

Two hot meals - breakfast and dinner - were served every day and the 167th was able to refrigerate bottles of water.

Because others did not have that luxury, Smith said he tried to give Black Hawk helicopter crews, who suffered through exceptionally hot conditions, bottles of ice cold water. It was a much-appreciated gesture, he said.

Smith said he also made it a point to take back to Iraq pizza and Popeye's chicken from Germany, where he and other members of the 167th Airlift Wing's Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron took injured soldiers.

Other members of the Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron who participated in the discussion were: Chief Master Sgt. Harry "Bud" Martz, an aeromedical evacuation technician from Waynesboro, Pa.; Lt. Col. Andrew Wolkstein, a flight nurse from Ellicott City, Md.; Maj. Sharon Webb, a flight nurse from Leetown, W.Va.; Capt. Christopher Taylor, a flight nurse from Martinsburg; Master Sgt. Michael Cook, a radio operator from Manassas, Va.; and Senior Airman Amy McLaughlin, an aeromedical evacuation technician from Waynesboro.

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