Maj. Kevin Doo loves the sound of the rotor blades on the big steel horse -- a Black Hawk helicopter -- he pilots in the skies over New Mexico. The 33-year-old National Guard aviator says flying such peacetime missions allows him to experience "serene mindfulness," alone with his thoughts and the sky.
That's a far different feeling than he experienced during his 10-month deployment as a medical evacuation pilot in Afghanistan: blood all over the helicopter, blinding dust on the ground, the sound of gunfire and patients suffering from battle wounds, head trauma, severe burns and scorpion bites.
"You've just seen all these horrible things, but the only thing on your mind is getting ready for another mission again," Doo said. "All you do is think about the human beings you are responsible for."
Last month, the National Guard recognized Doo's sense of responsibility, awarding him the Air Medal with a "V" device -- for valor -- for his leadership role in 2012 in safely evacuating a Marine who had an unexploded rocket-propelled grenade in his leg.
Doo's crewmates -- co-pilot Jeffrey Paulson, flight medic Mark Edens and crew chief Robert Hardisty -- also received the medal for their work on the mission.
Doo, who serves as commander of Golf Company, 2nd Battalion of the 149 Aviation Regiment and Operations Office at Santa Fe's Army Aviation Support Facility, had pushed away thoughts of that mission and his other experiences in the combat zone for nearly four years until the November medal ceremony, which he described as a "time warp."
During a recent interview in his office at the National Guard airfield off Airport Road, Doo slowly recalled those memories, returning to a moment when the science of flying turned into an art form under pressure.
He closed his eyes and clasped the arms of his swivel chair. His leg shook as he recounted the mission of Jan. 12, 2012, in the Helmand Province of Afghanistan. A call had come in to find and evacuate a little girl who had suffered either a gunshot wound or shrapnel wound in her back during a firefight involving Taliban soldiers.
Suddenly, the radio dispatch operator's voice took on an excited tone, and his words became distorted in Doo's headset. The dispatcher said something about an unexploded ordnance.
"I had no idea he was talking about a Marine until he showed up under our rotary blades," Doo said.
Marine Lance Cpl. Winder Perez had a life-threatening wound -- a rocket-propelled grenade was sticking out of his left leg. If it detonated, the whole helicopter would go up in flames.
Doo turned to his three crew members and asked them, one by one, if they were ready to take the wounded man onboard. "We realized this was a risk," Doo said.
It took about 3 seconds for the other three to sign on for the mission.
Hardisty said Doo handled the situation "with calm. He took charge of the aircraft, he took charge of the crew and he definitely looked for our judgment as well. He's always been known to take his time on things and think out a plan and be methodical, but he took care of his troops, that's for sure."
The trip took about 24 minutes, Doo said -- though it felt like 24 hours.
Had the unexploded device blown up, Hardisty said, "It wouldn't have been a pretty day."
"In a tense moment, there is team focus," Doo said. "It was, 'let's go, let's move him, let's get him home.' You follow your training. You work as a team."
The Black Hawk ushered Perez to a forward operating base called Edinburgh, where military medical personnel extracted the grenade.
Doo and his crew went back out to search for the wounded little girl. They never did find her.
Those sorts of unfinished stories -- the ones Doo labels "baggage" -- stick with him more than the successful runs.
Thinking about Perez's story, he said it "brings up all the Marines, all the soldiers, all the people who didn't make it out. It comes with the memories of all the times I wasn't fast enough."
The 10 months in Afghanistan, he said, taught him a lot about himself. "You don't realize how resilient you can be."
Doo was excited about serving a tour in Afghanistan. It was so hot over there that upon initially landing, a fellow officer said, "I must have stepped into hell." It was frustrating to be housed in a tent with limited communication access to the outside world and not be able to connect with his wife, Anna, some 10,000 miles away.
Much of that 10 months in Afghanistan remains a jumble of numbers to Doo: working at five locations as part of a mission that involved 17 aircraft conducting more than 1,500 medical evacuation missions involving some 1,800 patients and more than 4,500 hours logged in the air. He wore a helmet, a flight suit with armor padding and a 9 mm pistol on his hip. He also carried an M-4 carbine on every mission for defensive action.
Born in Hawaii, the veteran of 14 years developed an early interest in aviation while watching his father work the ground crew at Honolulu International Airport. As the Boeing 727s taxied by, young Doo dreamed of being at the controls of one. And maybe something even grander.
"I wanted to fly spaceships," he said.
Some 20 years later, he found himself enrolled in Embry-Riddle Aeronautical University in Prescott, Ariz., on a U.S. Army scholarship. He married Anna, an Arizona woman who worked in public affairs for the Army, and he was soon learning how to fly TH-67 Creek helicopters under the tutelage of a Vietnam War veteran.
Doo can't remember the trainer's name. But he does recall the way his instructor used a pencil to guide him, page by page, sentence by sentence and word by word through volumes and volumes of training manuals -- a simple act that underscored the importance of understanding what he was doing when he was at the controls.
Doo describes the experience of piloting helicopters as "low, slow utility work ... like pedaling a bike while juggling with both hands."
The best thing about serving his country, he said, is, "The people ... the camaraderie. All my good friends, all the people I know, are in the military. They are there to do a job, and laugh with, and they are people who you yell at and who yell at you.
"The military is a dysfunctional family sometimes," he said, "but it is a loving family."