Welcoming Home America’s Wounded Warriors

For over a year I’ve been privileged to serve as the Military District of Washington’s Medical Evacuation to the Continental United States (CONUS) Hospital Chief. Our team has the honor of welcoming home America’s Wounded Warrior Flights. On behalf of Army Leadership we greet every soldier on these flights, and express the nation’s gratitude to each one of them and their families for the great sacrifices made. We further assist returning soldiers by answering administrative and process questions, in order to make sure their transfer back to stateside medical facilities goes smoothly.

Most soldiers evacuated for medical reasons return home on C17 flights arriving at Andrews AFB three times a week.

Buses stand by to transport sick and injured from the Andrews Air Force Base flightline across base to Malcolm Grow Hospital's 79th Aeromedical Staging Flight. Some patients are bused directly to Walter Reed National Military Medical Center.

Approximately 20 % are then moved by ambulance to Hospitals in the National Capital Region. The remaining 80% typically stay overnight at Andrews AFB Aeromedical Staging Facility before flying out the next day to selected Army Hospitals around the country.

Every Wounded Warrior Flight carries remarkable young men and women with stories of heroism and sacrifice.  Many struggle to deal with physical injuries suffered just a few days prior on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan. Others battle with debilitating illnesses and mental stressors compounded by a decade at war. Whether on the aircraft or later in the Hospital, wounded warriors take pride in telling their stories. After every flight I’m inspired anew by the courage and resilience of America’s Soldiers.

Prior to the Wounded Warrior Flight arriving a few days ago on 9.11.2011, we recognized the patients on that flight would share a special connection to those terrible events 10 years ago. The aircraft landed at Andrews AFB at 16:15 as we watched from the nearby tarmac, waiting for the signal to board.  Once on the plane our team would welcome the Soldiers home, listen to their stories, and then ask them about their memories of 9.11.

Wars are fought by young men and women. The majority of the patients on the plane were in Elementary and Middle School on 9.11; the youngest in just the 4th grade. Several Soldiers remembered their teachers telling their class about the unfolding events that morning when passenger planes were turned into weapons. One recalled his teacher crying. One warrior remembered his teacher was a New Yorker, and she pulled a TV into the classroom so she and the students could watch the tragedy. One Soldier was out of school sick and at home with his grandmother on 9.11. He and his grandmother sat side by side watching the events on TV. One Soldier, a 6th grader in South Carolina on 9.11, remembered “wanting to fight back right then.” Another warrior, who had already enlisted by 9.11 but was still in school in a delayed entry program, recalled confidently that “I knew we’d be getting down to business, and that I would be part of that.” Another warrior, whose father was a retired fighter pilot, had taken a trip to NYC a week prior to the 2001 attacks and remembered he’d been dreaming about the city the night of September 10th, 2001. Several recalled watching TV throughout the rest of that day and evening with their parents. Most said those Al Qaida attacks 10 years ago had influenced their decision to serve.

Service members transport wounded Soldiers from plane.

Every Wounded Warrior flight has amazing stories. One third of the warriors on this flight were battle injured: a combination of IED, grenade, and gunshot wounds. One returning warrior reported that both he and his wife had deployed 7 times since enlisting. He was now being evacuated but his spouse continued to serve in theater. A Ranger with a gunshot wound explained that his unit was looking for a weapons cache when they came under fire. Though the bullet had passed through his forearm, he dismissed the wound as “nothing serious.”

A Chicago NCO lost a leg below the knee when he stepped on a low metallic content IED. Two of his Soldiers were wounded with him, one suffering amputations. What this warrior most wanted to talk about was not his own care, but how proud he was of his men.  A young PFC with grenade fragments in his face and arms sounded-off “I’m great” when I asked him how he was doing. He saw the skeptical look on my face and explained he was soon going to see his wife and young son. A medic riding in Striker was the only one in his unit injured when his truck hit an IED. When I asked him about his care, he responded that with a little coaching his guys did a great job giving him First Aid. He made a joke about the medic being the only one hurt.

As I often do, I asked this warrior how he got the character necessary to be a Soldier. He gave credit to his step-Dad, a construction worker, who gave him plenty of “tough love” growing up. Several wounded warriors on the flight spoke of family members who were veterans. One Soldier’s father jumped with the 82nd into Grenada. Another’s grandfather was a WWII Veteran of the Philippines Campaign, but had passed away 6 months prior to 9.11. When I expressed regret that his grandfather hadn’t been able to appreciate his service today, this warrior looked at me without blinking and said “Sir – he’s looking down on me and knows exactly what I’m doing.” After telling me he met his wife in a refrigerator at work, I sheepishly asked a wounded warrior from Alaska whether he had children and he responded “No. But I have a 5 month old Red Tick Hound.”  Evacuated a few months into his third deployment as a combat engineer, this warrior has already suffered several concussions and 4 broken ribs.

I’m honored to look those young men and women in the eyes and see the hash marks of service. There was no doubt in my mind that everyone in the aircraft knew full well that 9.11.2001 lit the fuse that got us here. Many have since sacrificed far beyond what can rightfully be expected.  Some have witnessed others make the ultimate sacrifice. Some will struggle valiantly for years with the wounds they came home with. But after 10 years and many fights in many places later, America’s warriors continue to report, proud to serve their country, and still ready to defend her.

Blog Post submitted by

COL Claude Schmid

Team Chief, Medical Evacuation to CONUS Hospitals, Joint Forces Headquarters National Capitol Region