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Warriors caring for warriors

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Jerilyn Quintanilla
  • 59th Medical Wing Public Affairs
It is 6:30 p.m.

Most of San Antonio is winding down from a full day's work, settling in at home with their families and friends. For Airmen from the 559th En-Route Patient Staging System, the day is just beginning as they make their way to the office one-by-one.

Based out of the 59th Medical Wing headquartered at Wilford Hall Ambulatory Surgical Center on Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, the ERPSS unit was formerly known as the Aeromedical Staging Facility.

"The ERPSS mission is to support the transporting [aeromedical evacuation] and caring for wounded warriors returning from deployments overseas," said Tech. Sgt. Crystal Beckham, ERPSS flight chief. "San Antonio is the hub in the Midwest for receiving patients, meaning the patients who stay with us were deployed from somewhere in the Midwest region of the country."

JBSA-Lackland is one of three stateside installations supporting the Department of the Defense's aeromedical evacuation mission. Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, and Travis Air Force Base, California, also support aeromedical evacuation missions serving as the hubs for the East and West Coast regions, respectively.

As soon as they receive a notification of an incoming flight, the team goes into preparation mode. Like a well-oiled machine each person has assigned tasks and they are responsible for making it happen.

"We have 12 people permanently assigned to this team, which never seems like enough," Beckham said. "But we make it work. We're truly like a family and I think part of that is because there are so few of us. It didn't take us long to learn each other's personalities and figure out each other's strengths and weaknesses. I trust everyone in this team to do the job and also to do my job."

On mission days, organized chaos ensues but there is a clear order of business and everyone has a vital part in it. "When we have a mission, it's all hands on deck," added Beckham. "I think it's the single most important thing that keeps us working together as well as we do; we're all in it together, working side-by-side, mission after mission, regardless of the time of day or day of the week."

But not everything operates as smoothly as the ERPSS team.

"The [air evacuation] mission is as unpredictable as they come so we have to be flexible and adapt," Beckham added, "AE flights can come in at any time of the day; arrival and departure times can change in an instant."

Due to the erratic nature of their mission, team leaders go the extra mile to ensure their troops get the time they need to recharge.

Our Airmen live the core value service before self, day-in and day-out, said Tech. Sgt. Kimberly Kemp, ERPSS NCO in charge. They are out there on weekends and holidays at odd hours of the night and they do it with a great attitude. We're always checking in with each other and making sure everyone has a good balance between work and home.

"Working here can be tough sometimes. It's hard to make plans with family and friends because things can change anytime; we could get a call and have to start prepping for a mission," said Airman 1st Class Megan Pollard, ERPSS team member. "But when you see the wounded warriors and you learn more about their cases, it puts everything that you're worried about or complaining about back into perspective."

That unique perspective is the other piece that keeps the team united and going full-speed.

"We never let ourselves forget that our patients are wounded warriors," said Beckham. "Regardless of their service or the severity of their injuries, they're all wounded warriors and you can't help but feel grateful to them and appreciative of what you have."

Many nights the ERPSS team can be found on the Kelly Field flightline waiting for an AE flight to arrive. As soon as the patients are transported off the plane and to Wilford Hall, they are set up at the ERPSS facility.

Toting the slogan "Gateway to Recovery," the team's focus is on two things: taking care of the patient's medical needs and ensuring they are as comfortable as possible.

To aid in eliminating stressors, the ERPSS facility aims to create a home-like environment. Patients are given hot meals and snacks, and have access to modern conveniences like a workout room, wireless internet, a media room where they can watch movies and play video games, and much more.

"I'm sure I speak for everyone on the team when I say that being able to care for [wounded warriors] and having a hand in reuniting them with their families is the greatest part of this job," said Staff Sgt. Travis Smith, ERPSS team lead and former ERPSS patient.

Smith suffered from central serous neuropathy, a disorder affecting his eye sight, during a deployment in 2014 and was ordered to be transported home.

"There were several stops on the way back and each time we stopped, we were evaluated by a doctor to make sure we were able to endure the next leg of the trip," he said. "The feeling of coming home after going through all of that was the greatest feeling in the world. I view it as a privilege now to be able to welcome these warriors home."
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