Healing Wings: How airmen train to treat high in the sky

COLUMBIA, SC (WIS) - The concept sounds like something straight out of a big-budget Hollywood drama: high-stakes and even higher altitudes, but the members of the Aeromedical Evacuation Squad make the characters on "ER" look like amateurs.

Their job sounds simple: evacuate and treat wounded warriors from the battlefield. Despite how it sounds, it's the execution that makes the job more difficult than you can possibly imagine.

The squad trains above the skies of South Carolina. However, training can't really prepare the airmen for the reality of their job.

"I don't think you ever really know what it's going to eel like until you're there," said Lt. Col. Delisa Showers. She's been down that road too many times to count. "Sir, I've been deployed so many times it's not even funny. Seventy-five patients on a plane, tons of amputees, no legs, no arms."

They may not be real, but the mannequins on board the plane during training take on the traits of those she's treated before. The mannequin on her left side is actually a 20-year-old young man whose foot was amputated in Iraq. The one on her right is a 21-year-old Marine who had shrapnel from a suicide bomb nearly kill her. Another down the row is a National Guardsman who had traumatic brain surgery.

Showers has been there when the wounds are still wet and the troops are trying to hang on.

"I'm there when they are still in survival mode," she commented.

Capt. Beth Michael hasn't experienced the chaos of the battlefield yet.

"[I've] never done anything like this before," she said.

Michael is a a stay-at-home mom still in training, but she treats the simulation as if it were the real thing. She's heard the stories.

"You have to be prepared to react appropriately," she said.

The training involves what they call mid-air emergencies. The nurses don't know what scenarios will be given, so when the instructor comes over, they get to pick what the trainees will be dealing with medically.

There are other simulated emergencies.

"This poor guy has been in a vehicle rollover," said Master Sgt. Grae Brown, as he stood next to one of the training mannequins.

Brown has the task of throwing curve balls at trainees, like Michael.

"We can handle just about anything that the war zone can throw at us - bullet trauma, ballistic trauma, burns, explosives, vehicle rollovers," Brown explained.

They also must handle anything the plane throws at them. Sometimes that comes in the form of turbulence.

"I've had a teammate - we hit an air pocket and dropped 200 feet. Everybody was up and she hit the ceiling, came down and broke her wrist," Brown recalled.

It's plenty to handle. One constant obstacle is the noise, but there are ways to get around it, like sign language.

There's not a lot of room for second guessing and . Michael says she's got the goods to handle the stress.

"It takes a clear-headed, organized person," Michael noted.

Showers added, "Most people are Type A personality. Everybody's a strong personality."

It also takes someone who's done it before to look you in the eye and tell you what it's like when you're in that moment, when a decision means the difference between life and death.

"Until you're there at night and the mortars are going off 100 feet away from you and you're wearing the vest and the helmet," said Showers. Because that's something that can't be simulated.

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