by Caroline Turney
When the call comes in, members of the Bulverde/Spring Branch EMS team move quickly toward San Antonio International Airport to meet transport planes bringing wounded military personnel home from the Iraq War.
From there, they take the injured via ambulance to Brooke Army Medical Center by way of Loop 410 to Interstate 35. If the patient’s condition dictates, they travel Code 3 using lights and sirens.
BSBEMS Director Scott Wilkinson explained how it all started. “About two years ago, when there was a car bomb over there, about 30 or 40 people were injured. We have a mutual aid agreement to help American Medical Response from San Antonio. They had been transporting for the Department of Defense. That day, they had to call us for help.”
Once the primary response team saw the advanced capabilities of the BSBEMS team, they asked them to transport the two worst patients. Wilkinson said, “Because we are in a rural area, we have to be equipped to begin treatment when we arrive on the scene. The closest hospital is about 20 minutes away.”
The advanced training personnel and upgraded ambulances used in Bulverde/Spring Branch were a perfect fit for the most critical patients. “We have more room in the back with space for a military stretcher and all attachments like a respirator and drug drip,” Wilkinson explained.
Now, the team assists the Department of Defense about once every two weeks. Out-of-service vehicles are used and the crews serve in a volunteer capacity. Local residents remain well-protected; emergency response is not affected by the project.
(During the 60 MINUTES television program about the outstanding medical care being given to injured American combatants in Iraq that aired Sunday, an EMS vehicle was shown on the tarmac at San Antonio International, preparing to depart with wounded to BAMC.)
As the BSBEMS crews await aircraft transport arrival, they read over information telling how each serviceperson was injured and when the injury occurred. They carefully study the patient’s name and condition.
“You have to understand,” said James Herring of Bulverde/Spring Branch EMS, “we are their first human contact after transport. We are here because we want to be, not because we have to be.” Herring makes a point of thanking the members of the Marine Corps for their service.
As an ex-Navy Combat Corpsman, Herring said the flight line duty is close to his heart. “We know what it is like to come back from having your world torn apart. We understand the fear, the anticipation of how you will be received, all of the emotions.”
Having served in Viet Nam, he recalled the sadness of unfriendly receptions for military personnel returning from that tour of duty. “Thankfully, we aren’t seeing that with this war,” he said.
The transport area is highly secured, so civilian interaction is impossible. However, Herring did recall a time when a wounded marine’s family somehow learned of his return and awaited his arrival at BAMC. “It’s hard to tell without choking up,” Herring said. “Anyway, this one marine’s family was standing out there. It was like stepping back into the past for me. When we pulled up and opened the door he said, ‘I swear I just heard my mother’s voice.’ I told him it really was his mother and we let them talk for a minute.”
“The amazing thing is to hear [wounded military personnel] talk about how they are sorry to leave their friends behind. They say they want to go back. You become closer than brothers out there. These are guys you are fighting and dying with. They worry about buddies still being there like you would worry about your child being away from you at camp or something,” said Herring.
“They also talk about the people they have missed like mothers, wives and children. A lot of times they mention something they want to eat, like they can’t wait to stuff themselves with Church’s Chicken or a Philly cheese steak,” Herring said.
Herring is experienced in talking to injured military personnel. When he served one tour of duty in Viet Nam, he provided immediate medical care for wounded marines while still on the battle field. Herring recalled, “I would tell them, ‘Hey, man, you’re going back to the world.’ That’s what we called home [the world].
“So, I know what these guys are going through,” he continued. “Even coming back is a shock to them. It’s like you come from not knowing who is trying to kill you, where you’re always on edge, to a place where everyone is going to work or dinner and the movies. They don’t even know what you just stepped out of. It’s not their fault, but you just feel out of place.”
Candice Huddleston is another BSBEMS team member who relates closely to the military. Her grandfather and father both served in the U.S. Air Force. “For me, it is one method by which I can give back,” she said. Huddleston said that the team often receives gratitude for their service. She remembered, “One doctor put his hand on our backs and said, ‘We really appreciate you bringing them in.’” That same doctor even took time to share additional information about care and treatment of the particular case they were working on.
While the Department of Defense continues to utilize Brooke Army Medical Center as one of the leading facilities in the world for burn and trauma treatment, Wilkinson said the team from Bulverde/Spring Branch will be there to help. “It is a great honor,” he said.