Army Dustoff MEDEVAC helicopter crews have been performing stellar work in Afghanistan. When troops are wounded, the Dustoffs go into hostile territory often while taking ground fire. Most interesting: they go in unarmed.
The helicopters are emblazoned with the Red Cross, and so according to the Geneva Conventions they are not allowed to carry offensive weapons. Just what constitutes an offensive weapon is another line of discussion, but the bottom line is that Dustoffs do not carry machine guns.
The Air Force Pedro rescue helicopters are not burdened with the Red Cross, and so they carry two .50 caliber machine guns. The U.S. Marines and British Army also don’t burden themselves with the Red Cross, nor are there the World War II-type scenes with medics wearing crosses on their sleeves. The medics are armed. In fact, some medical crews working in Kabul are armed even while in the operating room.
The Taliban and other enemies in Afghanistan do not subscribe to the Geneva Conventions. They try to shoot down any and all helicopters, and sometimes they succeed. If you ask an Afghan what the Red Cross means, he’ll likely say it’s a symbol of Christianity — and in that regard, it might actually draw fire.
There are numerous reasons why the Dustoffs should remove the Red Cross. We’ve been plagued with helicopter shortages in Afghanistan since the beginning of the war. When Dustoffs perform rescue missions, they must have armed top cover, often in the form of an Apache helicopter. By comparison, the Air Force Pedro rescue helicopters do not need top cover because they carry machine guns. And so in addition to adding more stresses to our helicopter fleet, the necessity to have top cover can lead to delays in MEDEVAC.
In September, I videotaped such a delay after an IED strike. The wounded soldier was a triple amputee, another soldier was deaf from the blast. A Dustoff crew was stationed probably two to three minutes away at Forward Operating Base Pasab. You can sometimes see the crews at Pasab running to start up a Dustoff helicopter, this one was parked about 200 meters from my tent. If it takes them seven minutes to launch and three minutes to get to the LZ, they could have been there in about 10 minutes.
The hospital at Kandahar Airfield is about 13 minutes away, and so this means the patient could have been at the hospital in about 25 minutes. Instead, it took 65 minutes.
The Army claims it took 59 minutes, but they don’t start the clock until after a “9-line” casualty report has been called up. The Golden Hour doesn’t start when the 9-line goes up; it starts when the bomb explodes. In any case, 59 minutes is a lot longer than 25, and this delay was caused because the Dustoff needed Apache top cover.
The patient was very much alive and talking, but you could hear him fading as the minutes ticked by. His buddies were saying he was going to live. The commander said to me that he was going to live, but as the minutes dragged by the soldiers became frustrated with the delay. We were sitting on a landing zone vulnerable to enemy fire, and there was little doubt the enemy knew where we were. In addition to endangering the wounded with delays, the delay also provided the enemy time to prepare to shoot down a rescue helicopter, or to attack troops who would be in the open on the LZ.
A Pedro pilot with 420 combat missions worth of experience read this article for accuracy and he responded:
Pedros fly in a two ship formation for several reasons, mutual support, both with fires and mission management, and added capacity. In a dynamic and inaccurate threat environment we may launch on one Cat A, and arrive to discover additional survivors (or, God forbid, Heroes). This happened often, but as an example one of my missions in the “Cat Triangle” SE of Bastion, I was launched to rescue a Brit double amputee. 30 sec from the zone a second IED detonated and rendered a second Brit as a double amputee. Both Pedro’s effectively split and worked individual rescues while maintaining each others “back” — we minimized the time in the zone and got the survivors back as rapidly as possible. In my opinion two armed Dustoffs are better for the fight than one unarmed Dustoff and an Apache.
If the Dustoffs were armed, there would have been no delay. So why does the Army hide behind Geneva Conventions when the Air Force, Marines, and British do not? It’s not about Geneva, but about who controls the Dustoff helicopters. It’s not about the “moral high ground.” The crosses have been used as a crucifix to ward off change.
It is time to arm our Dustoff helicopters. This will serve to protect the helicopter and will allow for speedier evacuations that will help the patient and the troops who must wait in harm’s way for the birds to land.