Europa/USA — Volcanic Ash Reroutes Transport of Afghan War Wounded

WASHINGTON, April 20, 2010 — Ash from an Ice­landic vol­cano lim­it­ing Euro­pean air traf­fic has forced the U.S. mil­i­tary to reroute some Amer­i­can troops wound­ed in Afghanistan through Iraq instead of Ger­many, a mil­i­tary offi­cial said today.
Defense offi­cials decid­ed to trans­port war wound­ed to Bal­ad, Iraq, to increase troops’ lev­el of sur­vival and to main­tain med­ical capac­i­ty in Bagram, home to the pri­ma­ry U.S. med­ical cen­ter in Afghanistan, Air Force Brig. Gen. Steven L. Kwast said.

“It’s all dri­ven by the require­ment med­ical­ly that that inter­me­di­ate stop saves lives, and it needs to be done,” Kwast, com­man­der of the 455th Expe­di­tionary Air Wing, told Pen­ta­gon reporters.

While Bal­ad does not have the same capac­i­ty as the Land­stuhl Region­al Med­ical Cen­ter in Ger­many, where troops nor­mal­ly receive care before return­ing to the Unit­ed States for fur­ther treat­ment, Kwast said, the mil­i­tary has tak­en mea­sures to ensure care at the Iraq-based facil­i­ty is com­pa­ra­ble.

“The real­i­ty is that there is no degra­da­tion in care because we’re going to Bal­ad instead of Land­stuhl,” he said.

Dis­cussing the need to main­tain capac­i­ty at the field hos­pi­tal in Bagram, Kwast cit­ed last year’s bat­tle at Com­bat Out­post Keat­ing. Fight­ing that erupt­ed at the remote U.S. mil­i­tary camp near the Pak­istan bor­der left eight Amer­i­can troops killed and 24 wound­ed, neces­si­tat­ing a field hos­pi­tal equipped for han­dling mass casu­al­ties.

“We have to be pre­pared at a moment’s notice for some­thing like a COP Keat­ing or a dev­as­tat­ing attack by the ene­my,” he said. “To have that capac­i­ty ready at our hands means we have to move those wound­ed sol­diers [to Iraq], and we have to move them in a way that allows us that capac­i­ty to be pre­pared for the unex­pect­ed.”

Kwast said the mil­i­tary is using flight paths that cir­cum­vent the ash plume when trans­port­ing those wound­ed and killed in action, albeit on dif­fer­ent flights.

“There has been no degra­da­tion in the speed and the effi­cien­cy and the dig­ni­ty and respect with which those remains have come back home since the vol­canic erup­tion,” he said.

A plume of ash that began erupt­ing last week con­tin­ues to block Euro­pean and transat­lantic flight paths, includ­ing those of Amer­i­can mil­i­tary air­craft. Thou­sands of com­mer­cial and mil­i­tary flights rang­ing from Ire­land to the Ukraine have been can­celled as the Eyjaf­jal­la­jokull vol­cano con­tin­ues to spew ash.

In addi­tion to rerout­ing Afghan war casu­al­ties, the U.S. mil­i­tary has made oth­er adjust­ments. Amer­i­can bases in Milden­hall and Lak­en­heath, Eng­land, and Ram­stein and Spang­dahlem air bases in Ger­many have been affect­ed by the ash plume.

“There are no flight ops due to the manda­to­ry dec­la­ra­tion and sus­pen­sion of flights from Euro­Con­trol,” Pen­ta­gon spokesman Bryan Whit­man said yes­ter­day. Euro­Con­trol is the equiv­a­lent of the U.S. Fed­er­al Avi­a­tion Admin­is­tra­tion.

“We still have a sol­id con­tin­gency plan for evac­u­at­ing our wound­ed out of [the U.S. Cen­tral Com­mand area], and we’ve relo­cat­ed some of our aeromed­ical evac­u­a­tion air­craft to Rota, Spain, along with med­ical teams that pro­vide for care all along the route,” Whit­man added.

U.S. Depart­ment of Defense
Office of the Assis­tant Sec­re­tary of Defense (Pub­lic Affairs)