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Part IV: 'It gives me chills when I think about it'

Friday - 2/11/2011, 11:07am  ET

Sgt. Mike Barrett (WTOP Photo/J.J. Green)
Sgt. Mike Barrett holds a photo of the deadly IED blast that nearly killed him in 2004. (J.J. Green/WTOP Photo)

Heroes Highway

After a six-year absence the Air National Guard is again flying critical-care air transport missions.

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Heroes Highway

WTOP National Security Correspondent JJ Green reports a smaller medical footprint in a war zone does not mean less care for wounded troops.

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J.J. Green, wtop.com

WASHINGTON - Impending danger is almost always on the top of the minds of U.S. service members in combat zones.

"We all roll the dice every day. Any one of us could be killed at any second of the day. We all know that, and we would gladly do so in defense our country," says Marine First Sgt. Michael Barrett.

That day almost came for him in September 2004 when his Humvee was destroyed by an improvised explosive device. He miraculously escaped the fireball.

While Barrett was transported from the battle zone, members of his unit and a still unknown Army medic helped move him to safety. Still others rallied around him as he was transported by air to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany.

"I don't remember it myself, but I do know about it and it has a huge impact on the initial mental process for that warrior," Barrett says.

Service members have developed a voluntary bond of support that stretches across branches and is most evident when they are injured. It is a deeply personal commitment.

"It actually gives me chills to actually think about it -- to be one of those Marines, one of those marines that's able to be there and help that wounded service member," says Gunnery Sgt. Paul Minix, the Marine Corps Liaison for the Wounded Warrior Regiment.

The support goes beyond laying a hand on the stretcher or flashing a reassuring smile and mouthing a silent 'thank you' as service members are being moved.

It's evident in the hallways of the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda.

"You see these little flags on the doors of the patients' rooms, they make a difference," says Navy Capt. Phillip Purdue, chief of general surgery and Trauma at the Naval Medical Center.

Each room that houses a wounded warrior is affixed with a small flag from the service member's home state.

The entire "Heroes Highway" experience can be so moving that it not only literally saves the life of a warrior, but it changes his life.

"I was medevacced on a bird (C-17 plane) from Iraq in 2004 to Germany and I was a nurse. I was a reservist," says U.S. Air Force Capt. Donald Tritz, a Critical Care Air Transport Team (CCATT) flight nurse. He was in the Marine Corps at the time.

"I was so impressed with this job that I got my commission and went into the Air Force. And by chance, I'm in Germany where I got medevacced from in 2004," Tritz says.

"These guys are American heroes," says Lt. Col. David Worley of the Kentucky Air National Guard.

His voice cracks with a hint of emotion as he continues, "They're part of an all volunteer force, coming out to defend our freedoms, to extend our freedoms to other countries, and now they've been hurt. We're willing to do whatever we need to do to get them home."

Brigadier Gen. John Owen, the Air Guard adviser to the Air Mobility Command surgeon, says, "The Air Force will spare no expense when it comes to medevaccing a wounded warrior. There is no higher priority."

(Copyright 2011 by WTOP. All rights reserved.)