WASHINGTON - Three times a week, sometimes more, Soldiers from the U.S. Army Military District of Washington (MDW) stationed at Fort McNair, D.C. travel to Joint Base Andrews, Md. and assist America's Wounded Warriors as they return to U.S. soil.
"We are the first people they see once they land stateside, and we answer questions ranging from where are they; where is their wallet and how can they call home," said Master Sgt. Juan D. Reyna, deputy chief of the MDW Medical Evacuation to CONUS Hospitals (MECH) team. "Andrews is the hospital door to the U.S. and everybody comes here from Landstuhl."
Landstuhl Regional Medical Center is the U.S. military hospital in Germany that acts as a transportation hub for returning Wounded Warriors.
The MDW MECH team is lead by Col. Claude Schmid, and consists of his deputy Master Sgt. Reyna, and NCOICs Sgt. 1st Class Tommy Bish, and Sgt. 1st Class Patrick Marcel. Its mission is to provide 24/7 Soldier support, assistance, and tracking functions for the Medical Evacuation to CONUS Hospitals of active, national guard, and reserve members. However the four Soldiers function in a joint environment and assist all that arrive no matter what the service or affiliation.
The team keeps Army leadership aware of all casualties arriving at Andrews and ensures accountability for tracking the Soldiers whereabouts once they land and until they arrive at their home unit or placed on further transport to other military medical facilities. They also ensure the casualties have the opportunity and means to communicate with home units and family members.
"Sometimes they arrive with very little. In their minds one minute they are on the battlefield in Afghanistan, and the next they wake up when the plane lands," said Reyna. "So we make sure they have the necessary personal items during their transit to either Walter Reed [Walter Reed [JUMP]National Military Medical Center, Bethesda, Md.] here in our area or if they are going on to another military medical facility in another part of the country. But most importantly, we say welcome home, and let them know that they are not alone and there is someone here to help them figure out the system."
The Team also provides casualties access to any necessary spiritual attention, information, and advice required in order to minimize stress and maximize well-being as well as sufficient funds for them to use during their transition. Each battle injured individual, no matter what the service, receives a $200 gift card provided by the Army Emergency Relief Agency.
Many organizations assist Wounded Warriors during this transition period, but perhaps the most familiar face of all, is the American Red Cross.
"I started volunteering with the Red Cross here at Andrews Air Force Base [now Joint Base Andrews] during Vietnam," said Felicia Hilleary, Red Cross Volunteer for the past 50 years. "I ran the film projectors showing the returning troops movies back when I first started, and I just kept coming back. I think they need a big hug and a nice welcome home, and that's why I keep doing it."
At Joint Base Andrews, the team interacts seamlessly with the operations of the 779th Medical Group Aeromedical Staging Facility (ASF) staff. The 779th ASF coordinates medical airlift and recovery requirements for more than 7,200 patients annually and serves as the primary East Coast hub for aeromedical evacuation aircraft, which returns sick or injured patients from Europe, Africa and the Middle East to the United States.
"It's impressive how organized things are," said Bish. "I have been with this unit for only a few weeks, and it is nothing like I thought it would be like. There are great assistance organizations like Wounded Warrior Project, Heroes Angels and Operation Home Front that provide support to our Wounded Warriors every day; so does the USO and Red Cross. It's really just an honor to be a part of it all."