STRATTON AIR NATIONAL GUARD BASE, N.Y. – The New York Air National Guard’s 139th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, part of the 109th Airlift Wing, trained with the Alaska National Guard during Arctic Eagle-Patriot 22 at Joint Base Elmendorf–Richardson, Alaska.
The exercise focused on homeland security and emergency response missions across Alaska Feb. 22-March 10. Participants included Air and Army National Guard personnel and active duty Air Force and Army service members alongside civilian agencies.
For the 26 Airmen with the 109th Airlift Wing, the exercise was an appropriate fit for a unit that trains for polar operations, said Master Sgt. Diane Solmo, a health systems specialist in the 139th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron.
“There are other Patriot exercises run by the Air Guard that are similar, but this was specifically in an arctic-type environment. Lucky for us, we have experience with that,” Solmo said.
The 109th Airlift Wing operates the Department of Defense’s only ski-equipped LC-130 Hercules aircraft. The 109th deploys annually to Antarctica and Greenland.
Aeromedical technicians train to provide medical care, similar to nurses and paramedics, while transporting patients in an aircraft.
The training scenario required aeromedical transportation for simulated patients following a series of earthquakes and chemical incidents in Alaska, Solmo said.
Over four days, the aeromed crews trained in C-130 Hercules, KC-135 Stratotankers and a C-17 Globemaster III aircraft.
“The main challenges were the types of patients and how much space we had within an aircraft,” said Staff Sgt. Molly Newell, an aeromedical evacuation technician from the 139th. “One day we had about 30 patients. Some were able to walk, but most were on litters. We had to find enough room for everyone given only one pallet position on a C-130, which wasn’t feasible.”
The Airmen had to prepare for regulated and unregulated patients.
Regulated patients go through several levels of approval and preparation for air transport, while unregulated patients are moved immediately from the place of injury and transported for further medical help.
“It was crucial for Alaska to practice this because of their limited resources. This gave them the chance to practice using their joint task force and requesting assistance from the Guard and federal forces,” Solmo said.
Crews treated “patients” in a wide range of situations.
“In these training scenarios, you’re expecting to have somebody who stops breathing, someone who has a chest tube or an IV, or a cardiac emergency – you don’t think about the personal things that could come up,” Newell said.
In one scenario, aeromedical personnel had to address a distressed patient whose family member did not survive the flight.
“We have never done anything like this before,” Newell said. “The scenarios tested how we responded to unusual situations, and it helped the chaplains to think about obstacles they’ll encounter in an aircraft. For example, how to talk to an upset person in a noisy environment.”
Another hurdle they faced was the expansive size of the airbase. Airmen based at Stratton Air National Guard Base in New York are accustomed to a small footprint for the entire wing.
“You may be 20 minutes away from your equipment and another 20 minutes away from your launch area. Somebody that’s in alert status is supposed to be able to launch within an hour. How do you make that work?” Solmo said.
On top of the logistical concerns, the Airmen were assigned to a new crew each day, rotating the aeromed technicians from different Guard units to add complexity to the training.
“We all follow the same medical and flying regulations, but every unit flies differently,“ Newell said. “Combining flyers from different units forces you to think about your role in the big picture.”
“Constant flying over the four-day period exposed the technicians to a new kind of stress,“ she said. “A big thing we talk about is crew resource management and teamwork. We definitely had moments where fatigue set in and we forgot about it. It really taught us that no matter how tired, stressed or sick of each other we are, we always have to come back together.”
The scenarios taught the players to remain flexible and rely on each other, Solmo said.
“After this exercise, I have full confidence that our newer Airmen are going to continue to provide the best care in the world long after I’m gone because that’s just what we do,” Solmo said.