Flying from Iraq to Germany across dark skies with precious cargo, Karla Provost was part of a critical care team keeping soldiers wounded on the battlefield alive.
Most of her patients never saw her.
Sedated and severely wounded, the patients had traumatic limb injuries,wounds in the abdomen, head and brain injuries and burns.
A respiratory therapist at Lakewood Health System in Staples, Provost, a technical sergeant in the Air Force Reserve, was one of a three-member Critical Care Air Transport Team serving soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"Just seeing these young kids and knowing we are the team that keeps them alive for the next six hours 'til we can get them to a higher level of care - it was rewarding. It was challenging. Probably the most rewarding thing that I've ever done in my career," Provost said.
Karla Provost, respiratory therapist, worked as one of a three-member critical care team in the Persian Gulf combat zone.
The transport team, which is on constant alert, works in a flying intensive care unit.
The team could handle as many as six critical patients for a single transport aboard a C-130 or C-17 aircraft. They flew directly into Iraq or Afghanistan to a Combat Support Hospital.
The wounded - first treated by front-line medics, then by field hospitals - were stabilized for air transport to Ramstein Military Hospital in Germany. Patients on the transport flight may have chest tubes or need breathing assistance or blood transfusions. With multiple critical patients and constant monitoring, the six- to seven-hour flights to Germany can be busy.
Provost wondered what happened to patients she cared for, but says it's probably good not to know too much. Her mind had to be focused on the next mission, not the last. All their patients made it to Germany.
Karla Provost, a respiratory therapist at Lakewood Health System in Staples, returned in May following a five-month tour of duty in the Persian Gulf working with critically injured patients from the battlefields in Iraq and Afghanistan. Brainerd Dispatch/Steve Kohls » Purchase reprints of this photo.
On her first mission to Germany, she was curious and looked into a couple of ICUs. She saw four rooms of young soldiers who were double amputees.
"Any other transports I never looked in the rooms," she said.
Provost flew about 55 hours in combat air space, plus additional missions outside the combat zones. While going to pick up one patient, they found three more were added after a vehicle rollover. They waited five hours for the injured to go through surgery before they could evacuate them. Back-to-back missions meant one stretch of working 40.5 hours steady.
"You just try to catch sleep whenever you can," Provost said.
Mostly flying at night, a red light indicated the plane was reaching the combat area. A few times the critical care team stayed overnight in the field with their own weapons, helmets and protective vests inside the protection of the base, listening to the sirens and sounds of combat.
Occasionally, the critical care team handled non-battle injuries but critical patients who needed to be evacuated. In February, they responded to a downed Chinook helicopter with 11 patients. Six were critical.
Air Force Tech Sgt. Karla Provost's home unit is the 934th Aeromedical Staging Squadron at the Minneapolis-St. Paul Air Reserve Station.
After five days in Minneapolis, Provost left to go overseas in January of 2007. Within a week she was on her first mission. She returned home in May.
Provost isn't allowed to say exactly where she was based but can say she was in the combat zone in the Persian Gulf flying into Iraq and Afghanistan to retrieve critically injured soldiers - both men and women.
Provost, 40, is married to Kevin Provost and has two daughters, 11-year-old Evie and 5-year-old Amy.
"Out of about five months, that was our biggest trauma mission," Provost said.
With most patients as big, strong, young guys, they have the strength to get through the injuries, she said. "It's just a matter of how quickly we can get them to the next level of care....
"In the Vietnam War we would have lost all these soldiers that we transported. We just didn't have the capabilities. We didn't have medical evacuation teams in place to travel that far. And there are many success stories too."
Provost joined the Navy when she was 18 and served eight years. She later joined the Army National Guard for three years before joining the Air Force Reserve.
"I always had a deep respect for the veterans before me - that was one reason I joined," she said. "Now just even more so."
To be part of that group is a distinct honor, she said.
When she left it was 125 degrees at her base where she was living in a tent. She was anxious to get back home to see family and friends. And there were the simple comforts of home - your own shower and good food.
"But when I came home I couldn't watch the news," she said. Provost would wonder who was doing the transport and taking care of the soldiers injured. "I felt helpless. I felt I should be doing something."
Provost was a little apprehensive wondering how people would accept her on the return. The support she received from the community was more than she expected.
"I've received nothing but praise and appreciation," she said.
She found many people had a family member or at least knew someone who had been deployed or still was. It created a connection.
Provost keeps busy so she doesn't dwell on the traumatic injuries she saw. Family, friends and Lakewood have provided good support, she said.
"My husband is the most supportive man I could have met," she said.
When she came back to the home her husband had purchased while she was deployed she felt a bit like an outsider. The family had settled in and had a routine without her. But the feeling of distance eased after a few weeks back home and each day, she said, it gets better.
When talking about what she gained from the experience, Provost's eyes well with tears.
"I look at the flag completely different, I really do. I just noticed that once I came home every time I'd see a flag it just brought back those memories and not always bad memories but good memories too, just good camaraderie, just so many good professional medical people are over there doing the work. It's just amazing."
RENEE RICHARDSON may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 855-5852.
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