The men of Charlie 2-4 fly Black Hawks over a landscape too dangerous, too wrecked for road travel. They fly into the hot, violent cities, the mud-brick towns, the nowhere stretches of desert, picking up American and Iraqi soldiers, civilians, and, sometimes, enemy fighters. For medevac crews, there are missions, and the space in between. Earlier today, Charlie 2-4 rescued three Iraqi boys wounded in a bomb blast in a rural field. Blood and mud caked their bodies, stubs of straw clung to their bare backs like a pelt. The mission reset the clock, the psychic countdown. Now comes a rush of static and an anxious, tinny voice on the radio: Insurgents have attacked a U.S. Army patrol somewhere on a highway south of Baghdad. One of the soldiers is badly wounded.
A four-man crew sprints to the flight line, loose gear bouncing on shoulders. They stow their rifles, slip on sweat-greased helmets. The pilot and copilot spin up the Black Hawk's rotors and speed through the preflight checklists. A sweet, dizzying breath of fuel washes over them. David Mitchell, the flight medic, scans the cabin: litter pans for stretchers, four of them, jut from the sides of the helicopter like berths on a ship. Oxygen tanks, heart monitors, bandages, bags of saline, all of it ready, wedged into crooks, compartments.
The crew tenses, especially Mitchell. The tall, 29-year-old sergeant is earnest and usually quiet, a polite southern boy. Excited or nervous, his eyes widen and he curses more, a habit he's trying to curb. As he sorts the last of his gear, he swears, a single word, the sound of it lost in the clatter of rotor blades.
The helo slides loud and low over the desert. In the cockpit, the pilots scan for muzzle flashes, tracers, warning each other of low-hanging wires. In back, Mitchell thinks through scenarios. He decides where he will put the patient. He imagines what might go wrong, what he will do. Medics learn quickly to solve problems, or at least keep them from worsening. Much of their job comes down to plumbing: Plug the leaks, stop the bleeding. Speed is key. If medics hold fluids in, if the helicopter moves fast enough, the wounded win time.