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NEWS | Nov. 29, 2017

Air Force Special Operations medics delivered care and rebuilt infrastructure after Caribbean hurricanes

By Peter Holstein Air Force Surgeon General Public Affairs

In the wake of the devastation left by Hurricane Irma this September, disaster relief efforts mobilized across the Caribbean as soon as the storm returned to sea. Small teams of Air Force Special Operations medics from the 27th Special Operations Wing were among the first disaster relief teams on the ground, executing a mission for which they are uniquely suited.

Air Force Special Operations medics delivered care
U.S. Air Force photo/Capt. Ian Matthews, AFSOC

The scope of destruction was so extreme it was immediately obvious that many islands needed a massive relief and recovery operation, but details were spotty in the days after the storm. Air Force aircraft, logistics support and medics would all be critical to recovery efforts, but these large-scale deployments could not start without a better understanding of the situation on the ground. The 27th SOW medics deployed to help lay the groundwork to bring additional assets to bear for major relief and recovery efforts, as well as to provide initial medical aid to people in need.

Master Sgt. Richard Hogan, Jr. an AFSOC Independent Duty Medical Technician/paramedic was one of the first U.S. service members to deploy after Irma moved out. As Hogan and his unit watched the storms on TV and read daily intelligence reports, they knew chances were good they would be called on to help.

“We were tasked to standby for Harvey, but we didn’t end up going for that. When Irma hit, the orders came down on short notice to deploy,” said Hogan. “We left as soon as Hurricane Irma cleared out of the islands and the flight paths. There were only two of us on the first flight, a flight surgeon, Capt. Ian Matthews, and myself. We didn’t even know which island we’d be going to until we got on the plane.”

AFSOC medics are highly trained medical professionals who also receive tactical training and stay ready to deploy on short notice. They are experts in delivering medical care and coordinating further operations in austere settings with minimal support. This made them the ideal unit to deploy to the Caribbean after Irma destroyed so much of the islands’ infrastructure.

Hogan and Matthews first flew to Puerto Rico on Sept. 10. Upon arrival, Hogan stayed to join the command and control team setting up at San Juan International Airport. Matthews stayed on board the aircraft, continuing to the island of St. Croix.

Hogan’s first job was to get information back to his chain of command so they could share and plan the total effort with relief partners and follow-on forces. Damage on many islands was so severe that communication barely functioned, while airports were completely out of commission. Before additional units could deploy, Hogan’s commanders in the 27th SOW needed more information.

“I helped establish a command and control station in San Juan, called a Joint Special Operations Air Detachment,” recalled Hogan. “One of our missions in AFSOC is to get damaged airfields up and running, so rescue operations can begin. It was such chaos initially, but our training really helped us understand what needed to be done.” 

Air Force Special Operations medics delivered care
U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Marc Villano, AFSOC

Another early job for Hogan was to review the requirements for U.S. State Department and U.S. Agency for International Development relief efforts, and compare it to the situation on the ground. After assessing the hurricane’s destruction, the JSOAD decided to call in another Special Forces Medical Element team from the 27th SOW, consisting of Capt. Phillip Hendly, a Flight Surgeon, and Tech. Sgt. Marc Villano and Staff Sgt. Brian Welling, both IDMTs/paramedics.

“Right away, it was clear that we needed more medical support in those first hours after the storm,” said Hogan. “Within 24 hours, the second team was on station to provide initial medical support and provide casualty evacuations as we went out to other islands.”

As Hogan was helping to establish command and control in San Juan, Matthews was on the ground on St. Croix. Once there, his task was to support missions from that island to St. Maarten and the British Virgin Islands. Devastation there was almost complete, says Matthews, and people were in need of care, evacuation and hope.

“When I got to St. Maarten the first day, a large group of American citizens were gathering outside the airport, waiting for evacuation. Most of them had lost everything, even their homes,” said Matthews. “I went out right away and started screening them for medical issues. I made sure they had medication they needed for any conditions they had and kept them hydrated.”

Matthews, as well as members of the second medical team, also identified people who needed priority evacuations, such as those who were sick, injured or disabled. As other aircraft started showing up, they helped keep the evacuees organized and got them on planes to return to the U.S.

The AFSOC medics were executing the three primary missions of a Special Forces Medical Element – base operational medical support, trauma support and casualty evacuation. They essentially acted as a small medical group in extremely austere locations.

“Our main job was to go in and establish the framework for bigger general purpose forces to come in and provide support,” said Hogan. “We open airfields, provide casualty evacuation in environments not appropriate for general-purpose forces, initial capabilities and needs assessments, and immediate care for victims and our forces.”

Responding to natural disasters like Hurricane Irma serves another purpose for AFSOC medics – they are vital training opportunities. Disaster response lets medics practice skills that are hard to simulate in normal training regimens, and the type of chaos, damage and injuries they need to deal with are all too similar to what they may see on the battlefield.

Air Force Special Operations medics delivered care
U.S. Air Force photo/Tech. Sgt. Marc Villano, AFSOC

“Every time we respond to a natural disaster, we get a new vector to prepare for the next deployment or disaster,” said Hogan. “It gives us experience to shape our future training, new ideas about how to properly equip ourselves in austere and chaotic environments, and it’s a chance for our teams to practice our trauma and surgical skills.”

“It’s an opportunity to go out and help our community and do some good for mankind, but it’s also an opportunity to practice our combat skills and improve our readiness posture,” said Matthews. “We don’t usually get many chances to practice all of our skills in normal training. So we learn a lot from these deployments – we identify weakness and areas to improve.”

The Hurricane Irma relief mission for the 27th SOW medics only lasted about eight days. Their job was to pave the way for other relief efforts, and offer initial care and supplies to people caught in the storm’s wrath. They assisted in evacuating more than 2,000 storm victims and coordinated with eight different federal agencies. However, as the airfields opened and a better understanding of the disaster emerged, there was less need for a special operations mission skill set. This allowed a hand-off to other federal agencies and relief organizations to provide aid.

Air Force Special Operations medics delivered care
U.S. Air Force photo/Capt. Ian Matthews, AFSOC

Yet in reflection, it was the people they met and cared for during those first 24 to 48 hours on the ground amid profound devastation that will forever remain with the AFSOC medics.

“It was really moving to hear the gratitude from the Americans we were helping to evacuate,” said Welling. “It’s hard to explain how it felt to go in and use my skills to help all these victims of the hurricane and bring them hope and ensure them that people out there care about them.

“In Special Operations, we live by a mantra of quiet professionalism, but it was really overwhelming to see the emotion on the faces of people we helped. We all got into the medical field to help people, so it’s very rewarding to have that opportunity.”