The crew of DUSTOFF 73 just left the stage. Their interview with Martha Raddatz, Senior Foreign Affairs Correspondent for ABC News, ran through the high points of their mission in eastern Afghanistan last summer, one of the most decorated missions in the history of aviation. Sixty hours in combat. Fourteen lives saved. But as the coauthor of the Newsweek cover story that accompanied their piece, I have a few things to add before they leave our thoughts for the evening.
First, many people’s image of heroism is rooted in extraordinary acts—the one-time sacrifice, the unusual feat at just the right moment. But the military finds a way to routinize everything else, so why not heroism, too? The result is the Army’s elite air ambulance unit, a squadron of Blackhawk helicopters stripped down and converted into flying emergency rooms. They’re known as DUSTOFFs—one of the more apt military call signs—and for nearly every soldier wounded in Iraq or Afghanistan, they arrive like guardian angels, starting patients on a conveyor belt of care that has pushed the wounded survival rate unthinkably high, past 90 percent. War is still hell, but it’s a lot less deadly thanks to the DUSTOFF crews: two pilots, a technician, and a medic—the only people on the front lines whose mission is simply to save lives. For them, heroism is the job description.
But even here, there are some efforts that are extraordinary—and DUSTOFF 73 was exactly that. The crew came out Fort Drum, N.Y., and last summer in eastern Afghanistan it flew into the annals of history. But in talking to all four crew members exclusively for this issue, I was struck by how their heroism had become habit, something that almost seems learned. I expected adrenaline junkies or war cowboys, but instead found four regular people susceptible to the same fears and doubts as anyone else. The difference? They’re extraordinarily practiced at finding that emotional dial inside and turning it way, way down. They put their fear on mute when lives are on the line.
It’s an extraordinary skill for anyone, but especially significant for Sgt. Julia Bringloe, the medic on board DUSTOFF 73. Five years ago, she joined the Army, at age 35, hoping to leap out of a deadening career in Hawaii, and then suddenly she was among the only women on the front lines. Women remain officially banned from serving in infantry or commando positions, but earlier this year, in a historic shift, the Marines and Army moved to integrate women into other near-combat roles. Meanwhile, women like Julia have been taking fire routinely for years. She rescues the same men she’s forbidden to fight alongside, and she never seems to flinch. “It’s a job, not a gender,” she likes to say. The military would do well to realize that.