The Casualties of War: Afghanistan’s Medevac Missions, Up Close

Johannes Eisele—AFP/Getty Images
Johannes Eisele—AFP/Getty Images
A wounded U.S. soldier holds the hand of a flight-medic as he is airlifted by a medevac (medical evacuation) helicopter from the 159th Brigade Task Force Thunder to Kandahar Hospital Role 3, on August 23, 2011. Three soldiers were wounded while their vehicle was destroyed up by an Improvised Explosive Devise (IED).

On the final day of a two-week embed, German photographer Johannes Eisele writes about his intimate, close-up images of the casualties of war. These photographs were taken during his first time in the war zone with the medevac helicopter teams in Kandahar, Afghanistan.

Johannes Eisele—AFP/Getty Images

An Afghan National Police serviceman, wounded from an improvised explosive device, is brought to a waiting ambulance after he was flown in by Medevac helicopter of 159th Brigade Task Force Thunder to the Kandahar hospital Role 3 on August 20, 2011.

I arrived in Afghanistan on Aug. 13, unsure of the story that awaited me and with no expectation or hopes of what I would be able to document there. For two weeks I was based at Forward Operating Base Pasab, Kandahar, where all the medevac missions start. After I saw the amount of pain and suffering that goes with these missions, I decided I wanted to convey these cruelties of war in my pictures.

Sometimes the radio would come on and wake us up. Just the words “medevac, medevac, medevac” would make us run to the helicopters, and we were on our way again. In the second week, the medevac picked up 34 patients—but every day was different. Sometimes there was one mission after another, and then the next day, there would be a single patient in need.

Within a war zone, the job of medevac soldiers is one of the most humane. Working in adverse conditions and often facing the most hopeless of situations, the soldiers continually show humanity and poise as they strive to do everything they can to help their patients.

Johannes Eisele—AFP/Getty Images

US soldiers gather near a destroyed vehicle and protect their faces from rotor wash, as their wounded comrades are airlifted by a Medevac helicopter from the 159th Brigade Task Force Thunder to Kandahar Hospital Role 3, on August 23, 2011.

There are two places where the medevacs bring their casualties, the first being Kandahar Hospital Role 3. This is where all U.S. soldiers go and where they bring local nationals with head injuries as well as children under the age of 13. The second place is Kandahar Hospital Hero, an Afghan-run unit where all the other Afghans are treated. But at Role 3, medics and doctors are always on hand to take care of patients, whereas Hospital Hero is badly equipped and where I got the feeling that many of the staff had given up hope to help, even as new patients arrived.

I was surprised by the number of wounded civilians the medevac picked up in a matter of weeks, most of them injured by an improvised explosive devise (IED). The exceptions were two Afghan children who had been shot in the stomach and one young man who was shot in the leg. But somehow, none of them seemed to cry.

There were also the U.S. casualties, many of whom I documented close up. One soldier was taken from a U.S. vehicle, destroyed by an IED, into a packed helicopter (two medics, two pilots, one crew chief, two other wounded soldiers and me). The soldier’s legs were all badly wounded. While two were asking for water, the third put his hands together as if in prayer.

Johannes Eisele—AFP/Getty Images

Two Afghan soldiers, shot in their legs by suspected insurgents, lie in a medevac helicopter of 159th Brigade Task Force Thunder during a flight to a hospital in Kandahar on August 17, 2011.

It can be a really strange feeling, having a badly wounded person covered with blood and dust carried right in front of you. Considering that I’m writing this on the last day of my embed, I find it hard to express these thoughts. I’m still processing them myself.

Johannes Eisele began as a photojournalist at the age of 19. He worked for a local newspaper and then for German news wire agencies ddp and dpa. Four years ago he joined Reuters, and for the past 18 months he has been a staff photographer with Agence France-Presse (AFP). He covered the Athens Olympics in 2004, the 2006 World Cup and the G8 Summit riots in Heiligendamm. Eisele is based in Berlin.

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