Army, Coast Guard Practice Emergency Evacuations on James River

An MH-60 Jayhawk Helicopter from Air Station Cape Cod, Massachusetts. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Ross Ruddell)
An MH-60 Jayhawk Helicopter from Air Station Cape Cod, Massachusetts. (U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class Ross Ruddell)

If a crew member of the Army tugboat MG Winfield Scott is injured at sea, the Coast Guard is just a call away.

That call, which dispatches the closest helicopter unit to evacuate a soldier, means the difference between a couple hours of pain or enduring days aboard the 73rd Transportation Company's only sea-going vessel until it reaches a port.

But before Wednesday, it had been years since the military unit practiced emergency evacuations with the Coast Guard.

"This is the most realistic training they've had in years," said Capt. Joy Harry, commander of the 73rd Transportation Company. "When I came on board, I wondered why they don't do it more. This is the only boat in the company that crosses oceans, so I asked, 'What do you do when there's a medical emergency?' 'Call the Coast Guard.' 'Well, do you know what to do when they get there?' "

Harry wasn't satisfied with the answer, so at about 8:45 a.m. Wednesday the ship's crew simulated a medical emergency to test their response. A Coast Guard helicopter from Elizabeth City, N.C., flew to the James River and hovered over the back stern of the boat. Several of the junior enlisted soldiers grabbed a cable lowered from the helicopter and held it steady while a Coast Guard diver, Petty Officer 3rd Class Kyle McCollum, rappelled down.

A Coast Guard helicopter from the Elizabeth City, N.C., flew to the James River to train with the crew of Army's large tug, MG Winfield Scott. They practiced emergency medical evacuations of a crew member.

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The helicopter backed away from the boat, giving those on deck a respite from the strong wind and saltwater spray kicked up by the helicopter's rotor blades. McCollum walked soldiers through the process of lowering a rescue basket onto the deck, loading it with the victim -- a mannequin the crew also uses for man overboard training -- and guiding it back up into the helicopter.

They practiced the progression about five times, so each of the younger crew members got a chance to participate.

Specialist Jared Yaroschuk, who has been assigned to the Scott for two years, said working with another service was new for him, but the drill wasn't too far outside of his day-to-day job working with tow lines and the crane aboard the tug.

"You want to get sidetracked and look at the helicopter," he said. "But it's important to keep that positive pressure on the line. This is a real-world exercise. It could happen."

Pfc. Alexander Rodriguez said the two services don't operate all that differently. "It's all safety, safety and more safety."

Chief Warrant Officer 4 William Sherman said most of the older crew members have done similar helicopter operations aboard other vessels, but Wednesday's exercise was really about getting the younger folks trained.

"It's fun for them," he said. "It's something most people won't get to do, but they're learning vital skills that might save their buddy's life."

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