CHANNEL ISLANDS AIR NATIONAL GUARD STATION, Calif. --
The 146th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron currently has several members deployed to Ramstein, Germany, and very recently some of these deployers were tasked with what they were told was a "high profile" mission that would be going to Libya. Capt. Kelly Khamkongsay, a flight nurse with the 146th AES, recounted the mission and shared with us many photos that she took along this journey to bring medical assistance to Libyan rebels
Khamkongsay said the seven-person crew who were selected to go on this high-profile mission were all very excited, but at the same time they were afraid of the unknown. They had been told that it was hard to distinguish who the good guys from the bad guys since everyone wore civilian clothes and carried AK-47s. "It was a new mission for us as a country, and still was technically a combat zone because the Gadhafi supporters still have not surrendered completely," she explained. They also knew that this would be a very high profile mission, and that media would be there to capture the event on camera.
They arrived at Tripoli airport on Oct. 29, and were unsure of what they might see as the airport ramp opened to reveal their first glimpses of Libya. After reviewing their plans of how to onload the patients to the C-17, the crew went from the airplane through the airport terminal, and boarded a bus outside the terminal which held the patients.
I noticed at least three large bullet holes in the windows as we were walking through the terminal," said Khamkongsay. "It was weird walking through what was once a combat zone, an area where Gadhafi troops held control at one point until the rebels took over.
"Outside of the airport entrance was a bus/van where we met one of our patients. The bus still had blood smeared on it, and the patient looked like he was in a lot of pain still."
Surrounded by Libyans, many carrying AK-47s as they had been told to expect, the crew got to work doing what they were there to do.
"It was not a typical AE mission. There were no CASF, no nurse to get report from. All we had was a Navy doc in civilian clothes who did not have many details," said Khamkongsay. "The names of the Libyan patients did not match the records that we had, so we used the names on their passports and made wristbands for them."
To make things even more confusing, all of the patients' names sounded alike, looked alike, and some even had first names that were the same as other people's surnames, she explained. "There was just a lot of confusion, but we handled it very well. This crew was very professional, and handled extreme stress and chaos very well on our mission to Libya."
At the instruction of their Chief Nurse, the crew were not allowed to take photos of the Libyan patients. "We had to respect their privacy rights as we would with American patients, she explained. The Libyans however were not shy. "Even though we didn't atke pictures, the Libyan patients took lots of photos of us with them!"
One patient was onloaded with a cast on his right lower leg, but the cast had been put on in a way that was in danger of cutting off circulation to the limb if there was any swelling when the plane reached altitude.
"The doc did not want to leave him behind, thinking this may be the only flight to the U.S., and if left in Libya, the patient was not going to receive the proper medical care," said Khamkongsay. "But with a lot of determination and dedication (and working under stress), the doc was able to open up the cast without the proper equipment, just in time for takeoff. He was definitely the hero of the day." They didn't know the doctor's first name, but the crew was impressed with his commitment to the mission, and wished that they could have had more time to express their gratitude to him before they departed.
Upon landing in Boston the patients were taken to Spaulding Rehab hospital in Salem, Mass. "When we left Libya, it was nice and warm, and when we arrived in Boston, it was raining and freezing with a little bit of snow or slush. I gave the blankets to the Libyans, but they gave them back, as if they were saying they didn't need it, but I'm sure they regretted their decision the moment the aircraft opened," said Khamkongsay. The ramp opened to a freezing, wet night, and an onslaught of international media cameras flashing. The patients were helped down the slippery aircraft ramp and on to an awaiting ambulance.
"While we are enjoying our time and experience in Germany, we can't wait to get back home to Channel Islands," she added at the end of her story.
For more photos and to read the Associated Press story go to: http://hosted.ap.org/dynamic/stories/U/US_WOUNDED_LIBYANS_BOSTON?SITE=CTDAN