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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, December 22, 2006

No break in medevac service

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

An out-of-state military helicopter unit is expected to pick up the civilian medevac mission on O'ahu from a Hawai'i Army National Guard unit that has been providing stopgap service for the past nine months.

Few details were available yesterday about the new plan, but it is expected to involve an Alaska unit. Hawai'i National Guard spokesman Maj. Chuck Anthony said an announcement will be made next week.

The Hilo, Hawai'i-based soldiers of Company C, 1st Battalion, 207th Aviation, which have been flying civilian patients on O'ahu since April 1, recently received a warning order for a 2007 Iraq deployment. They were expected to discontinue the service after Dec. 31 to start concentrating on deployment training.

The National Guard service was supposed to be short-lived, but the pilots and crews found their flying duties extended in July and again in September. Whether the Hawai'i National Guard will see another short-term extension before an out-of-state unit takes over is unclear, but Anthony said, "We do not expect to have any break in service."

The deal is good news in that O'ahu, the state's most heavily populated island, will continue to have rapid air transport to The Queen's Medical Center for accident victims and other emergencies. The arrangement represents another stopgap solution, however.

A Schofield Barracks unit provided the service for free on O'ahu for three decades but that unit and its 12 Black Hawks deployed to Iraq over the summer for a year.

In its 34-year history, the Military Assistance to Safety and Traffic program transported more than 7,100 patients, flew more than 6,000 missions and saved the state nearly $90 million, the Army said.

The Army has been discontinuing its MAST programs across the country as war service has picked up and civilian aeromedical contractors have been hired.

Hawai'i officials, however, hope that the 25th Infantry Division can resume the MAST service upon its return from Iraq. The state Health Department, National Guard and U.S. Army, Pacific, have been working to find a solution to O'ahu's aeromedical transport needs.

Janice Okubo, a Health Department spokeswoman, said the department has not solicited any private proposals.

"What we've always said is we've had a good relationship with the military. It's a relationship that's gone on for decades, and it's something that is beneficial to both sides," Okubo said. "If we can, we'd want to continue (the MAST medevac flights)."

Lt. Col. John Williams, a U.S. Army, Pacific, spokesman, said once the 25th medical choppers return from Iraq, the unit won't be available for any missions any earlier than October.

Williams said that will be followed by an "assessment of what other military missions they may have to perform before they can make any commitment on anything."

Approximately 45 of the 80 soldiers from the Hawai'i Guard's Charlie Company have stayed in a hotel on O'ahu away from families and jobs to fulfill the medical mission since April 1. Five of the unit's seven Black Hawks are on O'ahu and at least 26 transport missions have been performed during approximately 12-hour daily shifts.

While providing medevac services for O'ahu, the Hawai'i Guard unit also had to be available for troops undergoing live-fire training, a federal requirement, officials said.

Black Hawks from an active-duty Alaska unit have been supplementing Hawai'i National Guard medevac capability on the Big Island for military training at Pohakuloa Training Area.

The state approved $2.3 million to pay for the temporary flights, but some say the actual bill is higher with costs including a federal repayment of $2,700 per flight hour for use of the Black Hawks.

Joseph Rice, director of operations for Oregon-based Carson Helicopters, said he has submitted multiple proposals to the state for use of a Sikorsky F-61 chopper for medical evacuation.

Rice said a proposal was made for $3.5 million a year for 12-hour service and about $5 million for 24-hour service, but "we have not had any return interest or heard anything from the state on it."

Reach William Cole at wcole@honoluluadvertiser.com.