Award winner part of ‘incredible mission’

Nate Cairney
Kaiserslautern American

***image1***This was going to be a story about an individual Airman who won a major award for making a positive global impact in flight nursing.
But the award winner, Maj. Chris Paige of Ramstein’s 86th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, had a different story he wanted to tell. His story – about life and death, duty and innovation – involves hundreds of people making sacrifices for the benefits of other individuals. Major Paige, a flight nurse who helps get wounded troops home, said the award isn’t really about him at all.

“The squadron mission set me up for an award,”
he said. “It wasn’t anything I necessarily did as an individual. I am just part of an incredible mission.”
To prove his point, Major Paige unveiled a favorite anecdote – a true story that begins in the desert, with a Marine under fire in Fallujah. The Marine falls, wounded, and is dragged by a corpsman to the Euphrates River and tossed in a boat. The boat races upriver to an Army Combat Support Hospital.

A Medevac arrives later, loads up and lifts off for Balad. When night falls, an Air Force C-17 swoops in, loads patients and returns to Ramstein. The Marine spends a night at Ramstein’s Contigency Aeromedical Staging Facility and is on another flight to Andrews Air Force Base the next day. And then, four days after being dragged down a dusty Iraqi river bank, the wounded Marine is in his California hometown, recuperating as an outpatient.

Major Paige’s part of the story involves, of course, the C-17 flights to and from Ramstein. For him, it perfectly illustrates the wonders and the challenges inherent in the modern aeromedical evacuation process.

“There’s no place in the world that is moving people like this,” he said. “There are so many injuries, and we have to know so many specific things involved with flight nursing. The challenge is handling the numbers that we’re doing; we haven’t seen this many since Vietnam.”

Now, having been promoted to Assistant Director of Operations, his role has changed a bit. For an Oct. 17  flight to Andrews, Major Paige’s challenge was to turn the enormous C-17 interior into a flying hospital.

It’s not unlike crafting a game plan, he said. Bed and supply arrangements are contingent on the types of wounded patients that will be flying, and the flight crew will take on support roles accordingly. Major Paige also said the C-17, despite having less patient capacity, is far more flexible and amenable to patient care than its precursor, the C-141.

“We called the C-141 the ‘tube of pain’,” he said. “Inside (the C-17), the lighting is 10 times better, noise is down and there is more space. It’s much more comfortable.”

During the configuration process, 86th AES personnel move quickly and confidently to make it happen. The plane is equipped with oxygen lines, and technicians can pull power from the aircraft and convert it into household current. A small pharmacy is locked up inside various bins and mesh pocketed vests, and a small library is contained inside a rubber tub. The floors are clean, and 36 cots line both sides of the cavernous interior. The transformation from cargo plane to flying hospital is nearly complete.

“The 86th AES had to figure out how to make this plane work in the way it was supposed to work,” said Major Paige. “It stands out against civilian planes that carry just a few passengers.”

Once the inside of the plane is configured, two blue buses back up to the C-17 ramp. CASF personnel and other military volunteers begin unloading wounded servicemembers. Bedridden patients come first, followed by the walking wounded. Three critically injured patients are unloaded last, lying on stretchers piled high with monitoring equipment and oxygen tubes. During the flight, they will continue the healing process under the supervision of a critical care team that includes a doctor, nurse and respiratory therapist.
According to Lt. Col. Steve Hill, 86th AES Director of Operations, onboard critical care is an amazing thing. “There is no other nation in the world that can do what we do,” he said. “We’re basically moving patients from one intensive care unit to another. It’s pretty incredible.”

The Air and Surface Transport Nurses Association, a civilian group that encompasses the entire community of flight nurses, named Major Paige the winner of the Katz-Marion Award in a ceremony in Phoenix at the end of September. The award is presented to an individual who has a positive impact on flight transport nursing on a global scale.

Major Paige has earned this award. His actions certainly affect folks on a global scale. But, as he is quick to point out, aeromedical evacuations are truly a team effort. “All service branches benefit from the rapid high-tech good quality of care,” he said.