When the alarm goes off, everyone knows their role, and each member of the team moves quickly to man their individual positions.
They plot a route, check their systems, prepare their medical equipment, and the blades begin turning. Soon they are airborne in route to transport sick or wounded personnel to a medical facility. They are the Army’s equivalent of “flight for life,” but they do it all under extreme conditions in combat environments like the Middle East or Afghanistan.
That is the role that the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s West Bend, Wisconsin-based Company C, 1st Battalion, 168th Aviation fulfills throughout southwest Afghanistan, where the unit deployed this past spring.
Approximately 35 Soldiers from the unit, known as “Badger Dustoff,” left the Badger State in February to fulfill their role as the Army’s primary combat reserve.
“Just like firemen, we are on call 24/7, so we live in our medevac building, but what is different from a regular fireman is that our deployed ‘home’ is also where we work,” Capt. Robert Danforth, the Badger Dustoff commander explained. “Since there is no ‘home’ to go to, we spend all day of every day and every night together whether a crewmember is working or not.”
Danforth said living in such close quarters has helped to build a tight-knit family atmosphere within the unit.
“In the mornings we drink coffee together and tell stories from home,” he said. “We eat our meals together throughout the day, work out together, and in the evenings will often come together to watch a TV series or a movie.”
The unit spends much of its time maintaining their UH-60 Black Hawks or responding to calls for help from American, NATO, Afghan and civilian personnel.
“We provide the highest level of care no matter who the patient is,” Danforth said. “We strive to save every life we can.”
The unit’s commander has been impressed with his team’s professionalism and dedication to their important mission.
“They are mission focused and always ready,” he said. “After being here for six months and working nonstop, I am amazed at how quickly everyone moves when the call alarm goes off.”
Staff Sgt. Robert Gibson, a crew chief, echoed his commander’s sentiment.
“The Soldiers I’m serving alongside are fantastic,” he said. “It was said at our going away ceremony that this group was the best that the Wisconsin Guard had to offer, and it certainly appears that was true.”
“We have an important role to play in theater, and that is not lost on anyone here,” he added. “At the forefront of everyone’s mind is completing our mission safely, efficiently, and professionally.”
Gibson and other Badger Dustoff Soldiers recognize that their mission is critical to the overall effort in Afghanistan. Knowing that a medevac is only a call away allows personnel on the ground to focus on their missions, he said.
“Speaking with people from all the units we support and hearing that they have full trust in us if a situation should arise where they need us is just amazing,” he said. “It really is the pinnacle of what we as medevac hope to accomplish in our careers.”
Others in the unit understand their impact as well.
“We go where we are needed,” Sgt. August Hohl said. “We support everyone wearing a uniform. We are a phone or radio call away from saving a life at any given time of day.”
While the deployment has been a rewarding experience from a military perspective, it has had its challenges as well, Hohl said.
“Missing the loved ones,” he said when asked what the toughest part of his deployment has been. “Watching your kids grow and things without you. Seeing the fiancé and the kids out on the boat in the middle of summer without you. Seeing people you love pass away…things that you cannot control that are out of your hands.”
Nonetheless, the amount of support from home Hohl and the rest of the unit have received has been nothing short of tremendous.
“This time around has been amazing,” Hohl, who previously deployed to Iraq, said. “We have a wonderful family readiness group that actually just sent us around 50 boxes of goodies full of snacks and personal cleaning supplies.”
The Wisconsin National Guard continues to play an active role in global security operations as it fulfills part of its unique dual mission as the Army’s primary combat reserve. Approximately 270 Airmen from the 115th Fighter Wing deployed to Korea earlier this month, while 110 Airmen from the 128th Air Control Squadron deployed to Southwest Asia in May, and approximately 150 Soldiers and fellow aviators from the Wisconsin Army National Guard’s 1st Battalion, 147th Aviation deployed to Kuwait last spring. Meanwhile, the National Guard remains ready to fulfil its other mission as the state’s first military responder as more than 9,000 Soldiers and Airmen stand ready to assist with state emergencies as Wisconsin’s first military responders.
“With components of the 147th in the Middle East and us here in Afghanistan, the wealth of knowledge about the current battlespace throughout this area that will reside in the state when we all return home will be second to none,” Gibson said.
The knowledge the Soldiers return to Wisconsin with will only add to the level of expertise and professionalism they bring when called back to service by their state or nation in the future.