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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Friday, December 29, 2006

Military to cede medevac mission

By William Cole
Advertiser Military Writer

WHEELER ARMY AIRFIELD With war deployments continuing unabated, state officials have abandoned hope that the 25th Infantry Division can resume helicopter medevac flights on O'ahu and now acknowledge that a civilian operator will have to be found.

Until that time, though, three to four Black Hawks from an active-duty Army unit in Alaska will be used for military training and civilian medevac services, officials announced yesterday.

Two other choppers from the Alaska unit have been on military duty on the Big Island and will remain there.

The Alaska unit represents another stopgap measure, though, since the 25th Division which provided free medevac service on O'ahu for 34 years deployed to Iraq over the summer.

At a news conference yesterday, Maj. Gen. William Brandenburg, the deputy commander of U.S. Army, Pacific, said a civilian helicopter contract will be sought for military training and civilian medevac needs.

"The bottom line is, we've got to come up with a solution here for both the active duty (Army), the National Guard, the Marines and the state of Hawai'i for the long term," Brandenburg said.

To illustrate the pace of deployments and demand for military medevac choppers, Brandenburg said that when Schofield's 68th Medical Company returns from Iraq next summer, that Black Hawk unit will soon start to train for another expected war deployment either in less than or about a year's time.

"So when they get back, their availability to pick up where we were, say, three years ago (with the civilian medevac mission), is just not going to be there," Brandenburg said. "I think things have just changed," he added, in reference to the wartime demand for helicopters.

State Adjutant Maj. Gen. Robert G.F. Lee, who heads the Hawai'i National Guard, spoke about a series of upcoming citizen soldier deployments including that of Charlie Company, 1st Battalion, 207th Aviation, the unit that has performed the civilian medevac mission on O'ahu since April 1.

The Hilo-based Black Hawk unit, one of the last remaining in the National Guard to not see war duty, is expected to be mobilized in the spring and deploy to Iraq in the summer.

HONORED TO GO

2nd Lt. Troy Bovo, a Black Hawk pilot with the Hawai'i Guard's Charlie Company, yesterday said he's honored to go to Iraq.

"It's something I want to do," the 27-year-old said. "I want to represent the country and support the battles that we're engaged in."

Bovo understands the uncertainty that exists within the nation over the Iraq mission.

"There's different political aspects that are arising," he said, "but I'm a member of the military that's engaged in combat operations, and I want to be a part of that."

The unit is expected to end civilian medevacs by Jan. 31 as the mission is picked up by the Alaska unit. No service gaps are expected.

Sixty Hawai'i Army National Guard soldiers, meanwhile, have volunteered to deploy to Afghanistan for a year with an Arizona National Guard battalion and will be mobilized in January, officials said.

Also receiving orders are 29 Hawai'i Guard soldiers with the 12th Personnel Services Detachment, who will be in Iraq and Kuwait.

Although the Arizona battalion is part of the Hawai'i National Guard's 29th Brigade Combat Team which sent 2,200 Hawai'i soldiers to Iraq in 2005 Lee emphasized that there are no Hawai'i units that are being remobilized for a second tour.

"I have nothing in my sights or been informed by higher headquarters that there is anything impending," Lee said.

DISTINGUISHED SERVICE

The Alaska choppers are expected to be on O'ahu and the Big Island into the summer. The plan then is to have a civilian provider take over medevac service.

In its 34-year history, Schofield's 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, though, as war service has picked up and civilian aeromedical contractors have been hired.

As recently as last week, the state Health Department had its hopes pinned on a resumption of the MAST service upon the 25th Infantry's return from Iraq, and an official said no private proposals for service had been sought.

Health Department Deputy Director Susan Jackson yesterday said the new plan is an "elegant solution."

Asked if it was frustrating to need repeated stopgap measures for civilian medevac service, Jackson said, "No, I wouldn't call it frustrating at all. We do the very best we can with what we have before us."

Brandenburg said the Alaska interim flights to cover military and civilian needs are probably unique in the nation.

Like the Hawai'i Guard's Charlie Company, the Alaska unit is expected to provide civilian medevac service 12 hours a day, from about 11 a.m. until 11 p.m., flying out of Wheeler.

The state has to reimburse the federal government for the Black Hawk use, and Lee said he expects each civilian emergency mission to cost about $3,500. No estimate was available for the total expected cost.

The state Legislature approved $2.3 million for the Hawai'i Guard medevac service, which was extended in July and again in September with a plan falling through last summer for another out-of-state unit to pick up the service, an official said.

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. The unit has five Black Hawks on O'ahu and has performed 28 medevac rescues.

Emergency Medical Services personnel meet the choppers at the site of an accident or other emergency and fly back to The Queen's Medical Center.

"We're already on the scene and we're calling them to come to the scene," said David Mower, an EMS supervisor.

Brandenburg said the next step is to begin talking about a civilian contract.

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

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.