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105th AW Airmen see impact of aeromedical evacuation mission

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Julio Olivencia Jr.
  • 105th Airlift Wing Public Affairs
It was supposed to be a five-minute helicopter ride from Kabul International Airport, where U.S. Air Force Col. Laurel “Buff” Burkel was stationed, to the North Atlantic Treaty Organization headquarters.

Three hundred seconds from wheels up to wheels down.

Burkel still doesn’t remember firsthand what went wrong.

“I remember descending into the landing zone, then being in a bed back at KIA,” Burkel said.

Burkel recounted her harrowing tale of survival and recovery to a packed auditorium of Airmen assigned to the 105th Airlift Wing Aug. 4, 2018. An event made more powerful as she was flown back the U.S. via a 105th C-17 Globemaster III on an aeromedical evacuation mission.

The 105th does a four-month aeromedical evacuation rotation every 16 months.

Within the first week of this rotation the crew had evacuated patients twice from Afghanistan and made the trip with Burkel and others from Germany to the States. They transported 29 patients in total that week.

“This is what you did—you helped bring me home and I represent everyone you did that for,” Burkel said.

Col. Matthew Brenner, commander of the 105th Operations Group, spoke before Burkel to commend not only the aircrew, but all the Airmen across the wing that make the aeromedical evacuation mission and all flying mission possible.

“I guarantee everyone one of those patients has a story and the things you all did here made that story happen,” Brenner said.

Five people were killed, including two Americans, when the British helicopter Burkel was in crashed to earth at 4,000 feet per minute on Oct. 10, 2015.

The aircraft hit the tether of a surveillance balloon designed to protect the forward operating base and crashed within the NATO compound.

Dowsed in jet fuel and suffering a severe, life-threatening, neck injury Burkel was removed from the twisted wreckage 15 minutes and 21 seconds after the helicopter hit the tether.

In the chaos of the recovery effort, Burkel’s head and neck were left unsecure until a Navy officer with medical training who was riding in the lead helicopter came to the scene and heard Burkel complaining of neck pain.

“She goes ‘stop don’t touch the colonel, lock her neck down,’” Burkel said. “She saved my life—saved me from finishing breaking my neck in the manner it was broken.”

Burkel suffered a near complete internal decapitation. Doctors were skeptical if she would survive let alone walk again.

She spent more than three months recovering with a special brace, designed to eliminate any head and neck movement, keeping her alive.

When she was ready to leave Germany, where she was transported for medical treatment, a C-17 with the distinctive black tail flash of the 105th Airlift Wing, emblazoned with “Stewart” and Lady Liberty inside the big apple, was there to make the journey.

Master Sgt. Shawn Dutcher, the first sergeant for the 105th Mission Support Group, was motivated by Burkel’s story and proud of the role the 105th played.

“It makes you feel like you are more a part of the mission,” Dutcher, who has been a jet mechanic for 20 years, said. “You’re working on planes and those planes are flying and bringing our people back.”

That sentiment was echoed by Brenner who stressed the importance of everyone at the wing to get the planes off the ground and complete the mission.

“You’re not an observer, you’re not and outsider, you are part of the story,” Brenner said. “The things you do on a day-to-day basis help make her story a reality.”