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In sync: 934th Airlift Wing organizes joint force training exercise

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Victoriya Tarakanova
  • 934th Airlift Wing Public Affairs

More than 60 service members from approximately 10 units across the Air Force Reserve, Minnesota National Guard, Wisconsin National Guard and the Royal Canadian Air Force participated in a joint training exercise aboard UH-60 Blackhawk helicopters and a C-17 Globemaster III across two states in early May.

The multi-stop integrated mission involved evacuating simulated patients and multiple “tail-to-tail” patient transfers at various military installations across Minnesota and Wisconsin.

“We’re trying to fit in more, make it more realistic and push people out of their comfort zone,” said Maj. John Lunieski, a 934th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron operations support flight commander and organizer of this training exercise. “We’re pushing the edge of what we normally train on.” Lunieski, a former Army soldier, has utilized his Army connections to help organize and run this training exercise since 2019. The mission is typically conducted at least once a year and involves aircraft from the Army and Air Force to help transport and treat patients.

The number of participants has grown over time, with this iteration being the largest and most complex to date, bringing together two Army companies and seven Air Force squadrons from three different states and a foreign country.

“I know we’re very unique in this,” said Master Sgt. Justin Koch, a 934th AES aviation resource manager. “Nobody else is really doing this amount of integration.”

Multiple units within the 934th Airlift Wing participated in the exercise, including the 934th AES, 934th Aeromedical Staging Squadron, 934th Civil Engineering Squadron and the 934th Security Forces Squadron, which helped to accurately simulate a deployed environment where units would work together to provide air support.

“You get to see more of what an operational-world mission would be like,” said Staff Sgt. Michael Gapp, a 934th AES medical technician. “Realistically, you’d have a helicopter that would land behind your plane. The Army will then retrieve the patient from wherever they’re injured and bring them to a bigger base where we’ll have one of our crew waiting.”

As aircraft made multiple stops throughout the mission to pick up and transfer simulated patients, the 934th SFS Airmen trained on aircraft protection techniques and security protocols.

“Getting our ground medical folks involved too - they don’t always have opportunities to go into a plane or load a litter onto a helicopter,” Gapp said. “They never had to work with a helicopter before, so now when they go out to deploy, it’s like, ‘Oh, I’ve done this before.’”

The C-17 aircraft where the majority of the training occurred was provided by Airmen from the 729th Airlift Squadron, the 452nd Aircraft Maintenance Squadron and the 452nd Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, based out of March Air Reserve Base, California.

“We’re helping integrate them so they can see these capabilities and bring it back to their squadron,” Koch said.

Two service members from the Royal Canadian Air Force, 16, 17 and 18 Field Ambulance, also participated in the training.

“We flew up to Winnipeg [Manitoba, Canada] last year to do training with them as a Canadian or NATO partnership,” Koch said. “They wanted to continue that training, so we said, ‘Absolutely, come on down, we’ll teach you what we’re doing.’”

Job roles, resources and training differ significantly between the two militaries, making this experience valuable for both parties.

“Our Canadian partners don’t have the same kind of full-time job of Aeromedical Evacuation,” Koch said. “The Air Force has 32 squadrons that do it; they have zero. It’s a difference in resources and training, very different mentalities.”

Regardless of these differences, Koch still finds the collaboration incredibly valuable.

“It’s knowing what your NATO partners have as a resource,” he said. “What’s their knowledge level, so we can better help our people know ‘this is what they’re going to know and this is what we need to help them with.’”

For the Royal Canadian Air Force members, these missions help with job training and relationship-building, which is a critical part of joint force operations.

“We don’t do many independent deployments,” said Sgt. Stephanie Simpson, a 17th Field Ambulance noncommissioned member. “We’re always there as a part of the [United] States; We’d rather do training together and foster that relationship so that when we do go on deployments, we’re better able to just meld into that flow.”

The international component of the training also helped U.S. mission coordinators to understand the administrative steps needed to enable cross-country partnership.

“For them to get on this aircraft, we had to get the commander of the 4th Air Force to sign off on it,” Koch said.

Learning to operate as an effective team despite different backgrounds is a tenet that still applies even within the 934th AES itself.

“The really cool thing about our Aeromedical Evacuation is it’s the Reserve, so everyone brings wildly different backgrounds,” Koch said. “All of our med techs are EMTs, most of them work in a clinical setting. All of our nurses are critical care nurses on the outside, so they do crazy things that I can barely imagine myself. Then, you bring them into a military setting, onto an aircraft and they have to operate flawlessly.”

Koch anticipates that the scale and need for this exercise will only continue to grow, he said. He looks forward to the next exercise and foresees integration with other joint branches, such as the Navy and Marine Corps.

“It’s going to be a lot more dynamic,” he said. “We’re used to 20 years of established bases, but that will not be the next fight. What does it look like to have more high-acuity patients? What does it look like to be more dispersed? Our mentality is: We just do our job, but sometimes we get to do it in a more fun way.”

Simpson enjoyed her experience and looks forward to further joint exercises.

“[The 934th AES] is so ridiculously friendly, welcoming, courteous and knowledgeable,” Simpson said. “They know their stuff; they’re very competent, very professional.”