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A Marine Osprey unit here has taken on an exclusive new mission that could have far-reaching implications for the future of the military's prized tiltrotor aircraft.
With combat operations in Afghanistan set to end this year, the Marines had planned to conclude V-22 deployments last fall. But a directive from Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel extended the Osprey mission in Afghanistan with a single objective: provide casualty evacuations for the farthest reaches of southwestern Afghanistan to extend the "golden hour" separating a combat-wounded service member from a military hospital, where prompt medical care increases the likelihood of survival.
Deploying at the beginning of this year, Marine Medium Tiltrotor Squadron 261, call sign Elvis, out of New River, N.C., became the first Osprey squadron to focus exclusively on long-range casualty evacuations, complementing the capabilities of the British helicopter casualty evacuation team, known as MERT, and DUSTOFF, the U.S. Army casevac asset.
Instead of the three corpsmen that typically accompany an Osprey squadron, VMM-261 has 15, as well as a flight surgeon, all of whom went through a whirlwind multi-month extended training workup prior to the deployment. This included flight medic courses at Fort Rucker, Alabama, and live tissue work at the Navy Trauma Training Center in Los Angeles.
"I think we're probably some of the best-trained corpsmen in the Navy, short of the SEAL guys," said HM2 Nicholas Toufexis, who, like the other 14 corpsmen, applied and went through a screening process to be part of this special mission.
While the hardware of the Osprey has not changed for this mission set — the Marines love to brag that the unique tiltrotor design already lets the V-22 fly farther and faster than traditional helos — the aircraft in the squadron are standard-equipped to carry basic medical instruments and machines, such as a heart-monitor, and stand on the flightline stocked with the corpsmen's supply bags, full of basic triage materials from tourniquets to heat blankets.
The Osprey squadron will field any casualty calls from beyond a perimeter of 40 nautical miles, or about 46 land miles, from the field hospital at Camp Bastion.
"Their job is to ensure that the commander and the coalition forces have confidence when they're outside that 40-knot perimeter," said Col. Patrick Gramuglia, commanding officer of Marine Aircraft Group 26, which currently oversees all Marine air operations in Afghanistan. "I call it an anxiety reducer for the commander."
The birds, on call 24 hours a day, can be in the air within 15 minutes of receiving a call, and transport casualties from parts of Regional Command South, which includes Kandahar Province, and Regional Command West, which includes Herat, as well as the outer reaches of Helmand and Nimroz provinces in Regional Command Southwest.
So far, Gramuglia said, the squadron has only fielded two calls: one to transport a sick Marine, and one to deliver a supply of blood.
Nonetheless, the squadron has received some high-profile visitors because of its first-of-its kind mission.
Earlier in May, a delegation of medical advisers and leaders from across the armed services, headlined by Assistant Secretary of Defense for Medical Affairs Jonathan Woodson and the deputy surgeon generals for the Air Force, Army and Navy, paid a visit to VMM-261's headquarters at Camp Bastion to receive a "snapshot overview" of the squadron's deployment, from training to integrating corpsmen and crew, said Lt. Col. Kevin Gallman, the squadron's commanding officer.
"It's absolutely a first for the V-22," Gallman said. "We've talked to a lot of people from [Marine Corps] aviation to ask what type of equipment we need to enhance this mission set."
Following the deployment, Gallman said, the unit will submit a "lessons learned" document which will be reviewed by II Marine Expeditionary Force and eventually by Headquarters Marine Corps to inform future missions of this sort.
And it's possible the Osprey, which so far has been used for missions ranging from supply runs to evacuations and tactical personnel extractions in addition to casevac, may see more use as an exclusively medical aircraft.
Gallman said the Air Force is beginning preparations to use its CV-22 variety of the Osprey for a similar medical mission.