Patient air shuttles get wounded Polk Soldiers to needed care
March 22, 2010
- Shuttle service helps Soldiers avoid long, sometimes painful car ride
FORT POLK, La. -- The propellers of the C12-U rotate faster and faster as Chief Warrant Officer 4 David T. Keehan and Chief Warrant Officer 3 Larry Philamalee of the Tennessee National Guard complete their final pre-flight checks and await the signal from the flight technician to begin taxiing down the runway. They have seven Fort Polk Soldiers bound for Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas, on board for the hour and 40-minute flight to Randolph Air Force Base.
These patient air shuttle flights are operated by the National Guard and began in September 2007 as a way to get wounded Fort Polk Soldiers to BAMC faster while maximizing their comfort. They have ferried more than 1,456 Soldiers since the program's inception.
Soldiers are driven from Fort Polk to Alexandria Tuesdays, Wednesdays and Thursdays by van driver Harold Brannon, Data Solutions and Technology. The flight typically leaves Alexandria's Million Air terminal at 7 a.m. and lands at Randolph AFB in San Antonio around 8:40 a.m.
When the wheels touch down, a van awaits to transport the Soldiers to Fort Sam Houston or Lackland Air Force Base for medical appointments. Many patients return to Fort Polk the same day while others will spend the night at the guesthouse across from the medical center. The plane departs Randolph AFB at 4 p.m. and arrives in Alexandria at around 5:25 p.m.
Sgt. 1st Class Gary Polk, 814th Multi-role Bridge Company, 46th Engineer Battalion, 1st Maneuver Enhancement Brigade, is a big fan of this service.
"I have chronic pain issues, and a long car ride is unbearable," Polk said. "I served three tours in Iraq and one tour in Afghanistan, and this flight beats a Blackhawk or Chinook any day."
Polk said that the shuttle's schedule and the convenience of being able to stay at Fort Sam Houston allows him to be refreshed and on time for his appointments. "This is a great service and I hope it doesn't go away," he said.
Spc. Jessie L. Wright II, 383rd Movement Control Team, 88th Brigade Support Battalion, 1st MEB, said he finds great comfort in the shuttle service.
"These flights make travelling to BAMC a lot easier, especially for me," said Wright, who had his neck fused in October. "These flights are my salvation and I'm able to get the treatments and medication I need without having to endure a long, grueling van ride."
Keehan expressed how much he enjoys this mission. "It's a rewarding change," he said. "It's our chance to contribute to the mission and it's a welcome change of pace for us."
Keehan has no qualms about flying into the Million Air terminal in Alexandria. "This is the best fixed base operations we fly into," he said.
Kathy Comstock, Medical Administrative Assistant in Bayne-Jones Army Community Hospital's Managed Care Division, coordinates all ground and air travel plus lodging for active-duty Soldiers and dependents.
She commended the spirit of service offered by the flight crews, who have consisted of personnel from 24 different states.
"They give every Soldier they carry personalized care, and it's a great morale booster for them as fellow Soldiers."
Unfortunately, not everyone can use the air shuttle service, according to Comstock. Air shuttle service is normally available to all Warrior Transition Unit Soldiers and others as determined by medical necessity and the number of seats available. Comstock personally talks with each Soldier about their medical needs and assesses the appropriateness and availability of the shuttle service.
"Fort Polk is actually the testing ground for this program," Comstock said. "Other locations are looking at how we do things and the service we're able to provide. Everyone associated with our program considers it a privilege to be able to take care of Soldiers and their Families."