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Help from above

Feb 18, 2008
by Nick McGregor, '05

Alumnus helps transport wounded soldiers from combat zones to medical treatment

When wounded soldiers are being transported out of Iraq on a massive, medically-equipped C-130 or C-17 transport plane, there’s a good chance they will find Flagler alumnus Thomas “Jerry” Ricketson there to help treat them until they reach the safety of a military hospital abroad.

Ricketson is not only certified as an emergency medical technician, but also flight-qualified to treat patients. As a staff sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, he’s been risking his own life as he and the rest of the crew of the fully-equipped medical transports, think hospitals in the sky, fly wounded soldiers out of combat zones like Iraq.

“The majority of the patients that I’ve carried recently are traumas due to IEDs [improvised explosive devices],” he said. “There are a lot of impact injuries, lacerations, amputations and head wounds. If the injury is severe enough to limit the soldier’s ability to continue to do their job, they need to be replaced. [Aeromedical evacuation] is how that process starts.”

Ricketson, who graduated from Flagler in 1992, thought he would end up in the broadcast journalism field, but a year later he decided to join the U.S. Air Force. He was originally working on
B-1 bombers, but after re-upping for active duty in 2000 after spending time in the Reserves, he found himself attached to the 375th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron. That’s where he’s remained, weathering deployments to Germany, Japan, Jordan and Qatar.

Although Ricketson isn’t technically based inside military hotspots like Iraq, his work as an air medic has found him flying in and out of combat zones time and time again to pick up military
personnel whose injuries require more specialized or intensive care.

Currently, aeromedical evacuation crews operate primarily from Al Udeid, Qatar or Ramstein Air Base in Germany.

“We normally start the mission heading to Ali Al Saleem, Kuwait, and then we enter the Area of Responsibility and fly into Kirkuk, Tikrit, Mosul and Balad, Iraq,” Ricketson said.

Balad is considered the “clearinghouse” for Iraq because it has the largest military hospital. From there, Ricketson said, “crews from Germany pick those patients up on regularly scheduled missions and take them either to Ramstein or Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, which is the largest U.S. military
hospital in Europe.”

But Ricketson emphasized that serving in Qatar and flying from air base to air base — many of them only miles from live battlefields — presents its own set of challenges.

“Most of us don’t really appreciate the magnitude of taking off and landing in a combat zone,” he said.

The scariest and most dangerous part of the journey comes as the plane descends or as it slowly takes off again. “Cargo airplanes are very large targets on approach or takeoff, and we try to do most of our missions at night to minimize enemy opportunity,” he said.

But, as in any war, close calls do happen. “Last year, when I was in Al Udeid, it was the first time I’ve ever been on a plane that has legitimately ‘popped chaff and flare,’ ” he said, “meaning someone was likely shooting an RPG [rocket propelled grenade] or missile of some kind at us as we took off.”

“Chaff and flare” refers to defensive counter-measures performed by pilots flying in and out of combat zones, and Ricketson described the maneuver as “creating a larger heat source and therefore drawing the missile away from the plane.

“When the inside of the plane lights up because the outside just lit up, it’s very sobering to realize that you could have just been on the news as the latest casualty,” he said.

Serving in the military involves plenty of sacrifice, and Ricketson has seen both sides of the air medic coin, operating not only above the battlefield, but also on the ground in Germany. He stressed the importance of the ground crews, describing them as a major part of the aeromedical evacuation operations team.

“The ground crews facilitate the on- and off-load of the air crews, their equipment and the patients, and there is a sense of urgency to get the patients to a fixed medical facility, as there is with any emergency patient move.”

The ground crews also help to coordinate the military buses and ambulances present when a plane full of wounded soldiers lands, leading to understandably hectic situations.

“I’ve had up to three Ambuses and two ambulances offloading at the same time to different facilities,” Ricketson said.

And although the six to seven-hour flight in and out of Germany can be taxing, he saves the most admiration for the men and women operating out of Qatar: “The air crews at Al Udeid face the same challenges four or five times per mission, since all of their pickups are in Iraq.”

Fifteen years of service and many critical missions later, Ricketson still belongs to the Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, although he is currently receiving retraining stateside.

He said at some point, he would like to retire from the Air Force and move back to Central Florida, where his nine-year-old daughter Logan Nicole lives with her mother.

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