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June 12, 2018 | International, Aerospace

New National Guard medical helicopter unit set to deploy

WINDSOR LOCKS, Conn. (AP) — The Connecticut National Guard's newest unit, which has spent the past two years training with new, specialized helicopters, will deploy soon to provide care and transport to the sick and wounded in support of military operations in southwest Asia.

"To receive your first medical evacuation aircraft in 2016 and be fully prepared for a deployment less than two years later is a testament to the hard work and dedication of those in our aviation community," Maj. Gen. Thaddeus J.Martin, adjutant general and commander of the Connecticut National Guard, said in a statement ahead of a sendoff ceremony last month for the aerial medical evacuation unit, officially known as Detachment 2, Charlie Company, 3rd Battalion, 126th Aviation Regiment.

The detachment, based in Windsor Locks and commanded by 1st Lt. Matthew Barringer of South Glastonbury, doesn't officially deploy until later this month.

It represents a new capability for the National Guard. It received the first of three Blackhawk helicopters specifically outfitted for medical evacuation in the spring of 2016, even before becoming a fully operational unit in the fall of 2016.

Thirty members of the detachment are deploying and will spend about a year providing aeromedical evacuation, en-route critical care and medical support while transporting patients. Five of the members deploying are women. The unit will join the 70 guardsmen from Connecticut already deployed in support of operations around the world.

While deployed, the unit will be on 24-hour standby, and operate in shifts. A crew of four — two pilots, a crew chief, and a flight paramedic — can transport up to six patients at a time on one of the Sikorsky-built HH-60M Blackhawk helicopters. The helicopters have been specially outfitted for aerial medical evacuation and will be stocked with medical supplies like ventilators and IVs. The crew also has the capability to do procedures on board such as put in a chest tube.

"We're almost a flying hospital," said Chief Warrant Officer Jonathan Behuniak, 28, of Unionville.

From the time a call comes in, they have less than 15 minutes to grab supplies, get to the aircraft and take off to aid a patient, who could be a member of the U.S. military or coalition forces, contractors, and even military working dogs, Behuniak said.

Through training, they've been able to get that number down to nine minutes.

"There are a lot of computers that need to start working, so as fast as the aircraft will let us take off, we can take off," Behuniak said.

The benefit of a medevac unit, he added, is the ability to get a critically wounded patient to a hospital within so the so-called "golden hour," which greatly increases a patient's chance of survival.

A 2015 study involving the Army, Texas A&M University and the University of Texas Medical School at Houston found that getting wounded troops to hospitals in less than an hour, along with improved care on the battlefield and in medical helicopters, saved hundreds of lives.

"There's a wide spectrum of care an injured person can receive on this aircraft," said Sgt. Ryan Will, 28, Manchester, a flight paramedic. "It's very comprehensive care as well."

Flight paramedics like Will and Staff Sgt. Trevor O'Neill, 27, of Greenwich, have gone through extensive training and are nationally registered paramedics. Both are also civilian paramedics.

Members of the unit underwent a range of training to prepare them for the conditions they'll encounter overseas. They trained at a facility in Rhode Island that can simulate desert conditions. Anticipating mountain peaks of 13,800 feet, some pilots went to Colorado for training to get an understanding of how air density affects a helicopter's rotor system and the ability to fly.

Last week, they trained with members of Air National Guard's 103rd Airlift Wing, practicing loading and unloading patients onto the helicopters, and simulating different missions where the two units would cross paths.

"There are a lot of gravity and effects that are placed on the patient that there aren't normally on the ground, whether that be from high maneuver turns or simply just taking off and landing. Things like vibrations can really make a patient uncomfortable and these are things they have to know when they're giving us patients," said O'Neill, one of the flight paramedics.

There was strong interest in joining the unit, which represents a new capability for the Connecticut National Guard. Second Lt. Brett Boissonneault, 25, of East Hampton, was handpicked out of flight school to be part of the unit.

"It's a great opportunity to be part of an important mission where we're saving people every day, helping people every day," he said.

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