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Memoir Tells Of Daring Medevac Rescue In Afghanistan's Valley Of Death


One mark of modern American warfare is that even the most gravely wounded can survive. The survival rate for casualties is now about 90 percent, thanks in great part to the epic rescue missions of medevac teams. In the Army, these air ambulances came to be called dustoffs for the dust the helicopters kicked up as they arrived, often under fire, to treat and transport the wounded. One such urgent call for help fell to the dustoff team of copilot Erik Sabiston and flight medic Julia Bringloe on a summer day in 2011 in Afghanistan. In his new memoir, Sabiston tells of a daring mission that would ultimately earn the crew the highest decoration in military aviation - the Distinguished Flying Cross.

You begin the book, Erik, with a story of how dangerous these missions can be. Give us a sense of going into either combat or right after combat to pick up people who are sometimes very wounded.

ERIK SABISTON: This crew that I talk about in the first chapter centers around a young man named Heathe Craig. He was a medic. And some guys in the ground got in trouble as Heathe and his crew came in to pick up this soldier, you know, using a hoist - a long cable that lowers him to the ground - because they couldn't land. Unfortunately, the cable broke and Heathe and his patient both plunged to their death. This is the same unit that I would become a part of five years later, and that legacy of his sacrifice echoed in my mind and, I think, the minds of everybody in the unit.

JULIA BRINGLOE: You know, it is really scary, but you get focused in on the mission and go pull out somebody's son or daughter. And in that sense, it becomes - it feels a little less dangerous.

MONTAGNE: Well, you say son or daughter. In fact, there aren't so many women who you would have been pulling out. But you, Julia, are on this - what amounts to a combat mission.

BRINGLOE: Yes, which is what I wanted to sign up for. I was a ground medic in Iraq. However, I really had a limited view of the front lines because of my gender, and I knew that by becoming a flight medic, I would be flying to the battlefield, and that's really where I wanted to be, especially since I am good at trauma medicine. So, I felt like that's where my skills would be the best.

MONTAGNE: Take us back to June 25, 2011, on a mission that appeared to start as a - kind of an average mission. Maybe I'll let you start, Erik Sabiston, with what were you thinking when the call came?

SABISTON: I don't know. I don't get premonitions, but I felt like this was going to be a bad weekend. This huge group of soldiers landed on a ridge line, and they were going to, basically, walk down the mountain and try to clear out a Taliban and al-Qaida training camp in a valley called the Water Pour. And the soldiers on the ground called it the Valley of Death.

MONTAGNE: At that point in time, considered one of the deadliest places in Afghanistan.

SABISTON: Just ask Alexander the Great (laughter). It's a hot place to be. Anyway, they head down the mountain, and they got ambushed - cut off and surrounded. Once we got to where the patient was, we realized it was this mud hut roof where our friends had been shot down earlier in the day - it was about to collapse, and we couldn't land on it. We couldn't actually do a hoist because we were blowing everybody around with the rotor wash from the helicopter. Kenny Brodhead, my copilot, he took the controls, and we have no rearview mirrors in the Black Hawk. We can't see anything behind our heads. Our medic, Julia Bringloe, and our crew chief David Capps - they are our eyes and ears. They talked us into this mud hut, and we had to basically pat the head of the roof with our tire - not putting any pressure on it, but just holding it on top. He placed his tail rotor, which is the rotor system in the back of the helicopter that keeps us from spinning, right in between two trees with only a foot of clearance. And, of course, like I said, Kenny can't see what's going on back there. So we're trying to hold a hover, we're under fire, the aircraft's being shaken, the tail rotor is precariously close to hitting these trees, and if it hits the trees, we all die, as does everybody on top of the roof.

MONTAGNE: At that point, the moment comes for you, Julia, to do your job - to get the wounded in.

BRINGLOE: Yes, and to do it fairly quickly. I opened up the cabin door and hopped out onto the roof to make sure that I grabbed all the patients. Fortunately, they were definitely ready to get out as well, so it was really just a mad dash of throwing patients in - not the prettiest flight medic picture, it really is just throw everybody in, we're going to get out of here.

MONTAGNE: But, again, under fire.


SABISTON: I look back, and I see three figures - two guys holding up a very skinny guy. And he's looking prayerfully to the sky and his eyes are rolled back and he looks like he's dead. Julia's grabbing him. What she does not hear because she's not listening on her radio is - I hear a helicopter saying Roger, I'm taking them out. What had happened is a Taliban RPG team, which was still hiding out where our friends had been shot down earlier in the day, took aim at us and they were about to kill us all. And at the very last second, the other American helicopters took out this Taliban RPG team and saved our lives.

MONTAGNE: RPG's rocket-propelled grenades - this is heavy stuff.

BRINGLOE: Very bad day for a Black Hawk helicopter if we're engaged by one. Yes.

SABISTON: Oh yeah, it's - even if it blew up close to us, we all probably would have been killed. We didn't have time to explain to the crew what had happened. As soon as she got the patient on, she said something to the effect like, he's not going to make it. Let's get out of here. And we popped right off that mud hut and took off as fast as we could.

MONTAGNE: You do get grievously wounded soldiers and Marines. I gather it can be quite painful to look at, even.

BRINGLOE: It absolutely can be. I've seen the gamut of combat wounds, but I'm trained for that. I'm a paramedic. I'm a critical care paramedic, notwithstanding, after months and months and months of daily contact with that. And, you know, you come back from Afghanistan changed. There's no doubt about it.

MONTAGNE: The troops were drawn down in Afghanistan. So, too - right? - were the number of medevac missions.

SABISTON: Yeah, they're still there, though. They're sitting by their beds right now with their radios on their hips and their boots still laced up while they're sleeping, and they haven't taken a shower in five or six days, and they're waiting. And as long as people are on the ground in need of help, we will take extraordinary measures to bring them back, and that's a great mission.

MONTAGNE: Erik Sabiston is now an instructor pilot. His memoir is "Dustoff 7-3: Saving Lives Under Fire In Afghanistan." Julia Bringloe is training flight medics and her new name is Julia Stalker. That's because on another rescue mission, she pulled a soldier with gunshot wounds to safety. Later, he tracked her down to thank her and eventually swept her off her feet. Last year, she married him. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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