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'Doonesbury' Flies Home with Wounded
Military.com  |  By Bryant Jordan  |  February 15, 2008
The wounded Soldier flying toward home aboard a C-17 Globemaster canít talk -- he utters a few sounds that make no sense to anyone. The surgeon aboard the flight tells a reporter along for the ride that the Soldier -- who suffered a traumatic brain injury -- also suffers from hearing loss, but thinks it may have been a pre-existing condition.

The Soldier, unable to speak but fully aware, "thinks out" the cause of the hearing problem: "Yup. Nine Inch Nails. Worth it!"

Welcome aboard an Air Force aero medical evacuation mission from Iraq to Andrews Air Force Base, Md., as presented in the popular "Doonesbury" strip recently by Garry Trudeau, who incorporated the mission into a story line about a wounded Soldier returning from the war with a traumatic brain injury, or TBI.

Click here for Military.com's Q&A with Garry Trudeau

By many accounts, TBI has emerged as a signature wound of the Iraq war -- not so much from gunshots or even shrapnel from improvised explosive devices, but often from the powerful force of a shock wave created by the IED that can literally rattle the brain.

"I met a number of TBI cases out at the Palo Alto VA hospital a couple of years ago and have wanted ever since to write about [it]," Trudeau told Military.com in an email interview. "Toggle," the nickname of the wounded Soldier in Doonesbury, was created specifically to help tell that story, Trudeau said.

Over the week Trudeau took to show Toggle's trip home he captured not only Toggle's quiet courage, but the gee-whiz capabilities of the Air Force's flying intensive care unit. The C-17 Globemaster III may be known more widely as the most reliable heavy airlifter in the Air Force, but once fitted up for medical transport the plane is an air-mobile hospital ward, with  patients stacked three high along two rows of hospital bunks and ambulatory patients sitting in chairs against both sides of the plane.

And then there are the special cases -- such as Toggle's -- troops so critical they're on electronic monitors the entire trip, sometimes on life-support, and constantly checked on by the doctor and nurses who make up the medical crew.
For anyone who has made the flight, youíd think Trudeau did his research on an actual mission, but he didnít -- "although not for lack of trying," he said.

"I contacted the DOD, but couldn't pull it together within the schedule I was on. Because of privacy concerns, traveling with the critically wounded required me to secure permission from all the various surgeon-general offices, which wasn't going to happen in the middle of Christmas holidays on one week's notice."

Instead, the country's most popular and famous political and cultural cartoonist flew to Ramstein Air Base, Germany, where he met a C-17 aeromedical flight coming in from Iraq. The planes stop there to get some of the more critical patients to the Army-run Landstuhl Regional Medical Center before continuing on to the United States.

"I toured the aircraft and stayed up half the night talking with ... flight surgeons," Trudeau said. "Then I toured Landstuhl, flew home and met another plane at Andrews to observe the handoff to Walter Reed. Finally I talked to TBI specialists at the hospital."

Capt. Jerry Earl, a flight nurse with the 315th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, Charleston Air Force Base, S.C., said he was pleased and impressed with Trudeau's tip-of-the-hat toward the unit's work.

"I thought it was a good presentation of what we do," he told Military.com. "I was very happy to see the aeromedical evacuation component illustrated so that people have a little better understanding of what we do and the kinds of heroes we've transported."

Earl has been flying medical transport missions since before the Iraq invasion, and even the war in Afghanistan.

Earl also thought Trudeau was able to make a good point that a great many men and women flying home aboard the C-17s have injuries not related to combat -- including from sports injuries and accidents.

"But with hundreds of thousands of people in theater, there's bound to be accidents," Earl said. "Accidents are a fact of life." And then he pointed out, some accidents are as serious as a combat injury.

For his part, Trudeau found the aero medical evacuation mission a marvel, particularly for its ability to handle critical care air transport patients.

"It's as impressive as you might imagine. There is an extraordinary number of moving parts, but by now transporting CCATs has been [made routine]," he said. "The extraordinary has been made ordinary.  It should inspire a lot of confidence in the ranks -- if you're injured, no matter how severely, your evacuation will be handled with competence and professionalism."

Read classic Doonesbury strips here.

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