Hurry, wait...and die
Army rules stalling Medevacs

Tyler Price/US Air Force

U.S. Airmen and Soldiers assigned to the 76th Expeditionary Rescue Squadron (ERS) provide critical care to a patient onboard an HC-130 Hercules aircraft during a medical evacuation at Camp Bastion, Afghanistan, Jan. 28, 2012.

Article Highlights

  • The #USArmy won't let rescue helicopters in hot zones unless escorted by an armed one-despite mortal consequences

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  • Dustoffs, rescue helicopters, are branded with a #redcross which broadcasts that they are #unarmed

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  • The US Army should follow the #marines and #airforce and unmark and arm their choppers to ensure the injured will get rescued

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On Sept. 18, Army Spec. Chazray Clark stepped on an IED in Kandahar province, instantly losing an arm and both legs. But the 24-year-old Michigan native was still able to say, “I’m OK,” when his sergeant frantically called out his name. The patrol’s commander immediately radioed for an Army Medevac helicopter, or Dustoff. Clark’s comrade applied turniquets and carried him back to the landing zone for pickup. There they waited — and waited.

The Dustoff they needed was only two or three minutes away at a forward operating base. It couldn’t take off because, under Army rules, the rescue helicopters with their clearly marked red crosses need an armed-helicopter escort to enter a hot combat zone — and none were available.

An armed Air Force Medevac helo was available at Kandahar Air Base. It could have been dispatched to pick up Clark, who was still talking and fully conscious. The Army said no; rules are rules.

"The fact that the Marines and the Air Force (and even the British) seem to consider such restrictions suicidal doesn’t faze the Army." -- Arthur Herman

Finally, a Dustoff crew did fly off from Kandahar without escort. But by now what should have been a 13-minute rescue operation had dragged on more than an hour. Clark was dead when he reached Kandahar.

Now some in Congress, in particular Rep. Todd Akin (R-Mo.), are asking why Clark had to die — and why the US Army insists on conducting its medical evacuations as if our troops were in the Argonne Forest or at Normandy, instead of fighting a ruthless enemy who respects no civilized rules of engagement, even as we foolishly cling to ours.

In the old days, medics of every country went on the battlefield unarmed — the Geneva Conventions even required it. The red cross markings made it clear that their mission was saving lives, often on both sides — so they weren’t legitimate targets.

Even the Nazis in World War II respected that rule. When the Japanese didn’t, American medics learned to carry a sidearm or even a rifle, knowing they were sitting ducks otherwise. Geneva rules don’t apply when the enemy refuses to honor them.

Today, a Taliban that hides behind civilians, gang-rapes women and shoots children has no scruples about killing an American medic or downing a Medevac chopper. The Army has updated the rules in Afghanistan to the extent of sending along an escorting Apache attack ’copter when unarmed Dustoffs must pick up wounded in dangerous areas — even though that means one less Apache to fight the bad guys elsewhere.

But it still insists on painting its Dustoffs with big red crosses, even though that sends the clear message to Taliban killers that we can’t shoot back. It never sends them in alone unless higher-ups deem the area safe — a bureaucratic decision that probably cost Spec. Clark his life.

Interestingly, Marine Medevac choppers are armed and unmarked, as are the Air Force’s. But the Army insists that arming its Dustoffs would only add to their weight, leaving less space for medical supplies and evacuees. The fact that the Marines and the Air Force (and even the British) seem to consider such restrictions suicidal doesn’t faze the Army.

Army spokesmen point out that no Dustoff has ever been shot down in Afghanistan, and that their evacuation-survival rate (92 percent) is stellar. Still, soldiers will tell you of other instances when the lack of escorts delayed the arrival of a Medevac team — at times when every minute can make the difference between life and death. For Chazray Clark, it probably did.

Our soldiers in Afghanistan have to deal with enough absurd rules of engagement without having to put up with one that can turn a serious wound into a mortal one. They deserve better — as do our Dustoff crews.

It takes a special kind of heroism to thrust yourself into the midst of battle, when your entire focus has to be not the enemy but rescuing people you’ve never seen or met — including sometimes the enemy himself.

Those men and women deserve our best — and deserve a fighting chance.

Arthur Herman is a visiting scholar at AEI.

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