FORWARD OPERATING BASE RIPLEY, Afghanistan -- At 9:30 p.m. local time on May 25, 2004, elements of the 22nd Marine Expeditionary Unit (Special Operations Capable) participating in a joint Marine-Afghan Militia Force sweep of a suspected Taliban sanctuary in south-central Afghanistan were settling into their nighttime defensive positions when all hell broke loose.
Without warning, Maj. Brian Christmas, operations officer for Battalion Landing Team 1st Bn., 6th Marines, began calling out in the darkness for Marines to pull their vehicles out of position, converge on his position, and turn their headlights. The expected grumbling of tired drivers and infantrymen came to an abrupt halt when the white lights revealed bloody and dazed AMF troops being unloaded from trucks and laid gingerly upon the ground.
Approximately a kilometer from the task force's position, a Toyota Hi-Lux four-door pick-up, loaded with AMF troops, had careened off a narrow, broken road and plunged thirty feet down a steep embankment, tossing aside its human cargo before crashing to a halt upside down in a swollen stream bed. Other trucks in the AMF convoy had picked up the truck's injured occupants and immediately brought them to the Marine's position.
Navy Lt. Brendon Drew, medical officer for BLT 1/6, and a small group of BLT 1/6 corpsmen immediately began tending the wounded. While Drew and Petty Officer 2nd Class Clayton Argall established triage to evaluate the wounded and assign them priority of medical care, Petty Officer 3rd Class George Ladd collected their vital signs while Petty Officer 3rd Class Michael Linder scrounged supplies to treat the injured Afghans.
"These were some pretty serious injuries," said Drew. "Several were life-threatening, and I had doubts some of these guys were going to make it."
Among the injuries were three cases of severe head trauma, possible internal injuries, broken ribs, a broken wrist, and bloody lacerations.
Plugging IVs, stapling or suturing open wounds, splinting broken limbs, and clearing airways, the medical specialists moved from man to man treating their injuries as best they could considering the austere conditions and pitch-black night. Making the situation more difficult was the language barrier that could only be overcome through interpreters who did their best to convey the injured men's complaints and who in turn relayed the Sailors' instructors and questions.
Realizing the gravity of the men's injuries, Lt. Col. Asad Khan, commanding officer of BLT 1/6, requested medical air evacuation of the most severely injured through the MEU headquarters who immediately dispatched two CH-46E Sea Knight helicopters, on alert at Forward Operating Base Ripley, to the scene.
"It was true varsity flying," said Lt. Col. Joel Powers, commanding officer of Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 266 (Reinforced), commenting on the flying prowess of the casualty evacuation (CASEVAC) crews that night.
Flying toward the hastily-found helicopter landing zone in darkness broken only by a sliver of moon, relying completely on night vision goggles, the two Sea Knight flight crews flew over the area several times to orient themselves before the first aircraft touched down in a sea of dust and pebbles.
As soon as the aircraft landed, litter teams scraped together from BLT 1/6's reconnaissance platoon and Combined Anti-Armor Team, the MEU Command Element, and MEU Service Support Group 22 raced toward the helicopters carrying the injured Afghans. Onto the first aircraft went the most seriously wounded for transportation back to Kandahar Air Field, while the second aircraft was earmarked to fly the less dire cases to FOB Ripley.
Usually, the dust kicked up by a helicopter settles after a few minutes, but this night the dust lingered, shrouding the landing zone in a thick, visually-impenetrable cloud into which the second aircraft had to fly.
"I was the lead aircraft, but because Capt. [Jennifer] Goddard had the corpsman on her helicopter, I moved aside so she could land first.," said Maj. Roger Meade, the aircraft section leader that night. "That was one of the most difficult landings I've ever made
and my crew chief did a great job talking me down through the cloud."
"That was some of the most impressive flying I've ever seen," said Christmas, later commenting on the evacuation.
Once at Kandahar and FOB Ripley, the AMF troops were treated, and over the next few days, released with much-improved bills of health and good prognosis.
"This is what the job is all about," said Drew as he and the corpsmen cleaned up the treatment site. "Conducting field medicine is so much more rewarding than working at a hospital because you can make an immediate impact on someone's life."
For their efforts that night and role in saving the life of the AMF fighters, Petty Officers Argall, Ladd, and Linder were later awarded Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medals.
The 22nd MEU (SOC) is in Afghanistan conducting combat and civil military operations as Task Force Linebacker.
For more information on the 22d MEU (SOC)'s role in Operation ENDURING FREEDOM, visit the unit's web site at www.22meu.usmc.mil.