June 30 was a rather normal day for the Marines and sailors of the advisor team attached to the Afghan National Army’s 6th Kandak, 2nd Brigade, 215th Corps, at Patrol Base Dehmazong, Afghanistan.
That was until a series of explosions set them on a course of climactic events. A convoy from the Afghan Army was driving on Route 606 when it struck an improvised explosive device. A bus, traveling the other direction, attempted to drive around the stopped convoy. Afghan soldiers signaled the bus to stop, but it continued on, triggering another IED.
The Marines and Afghan soldiers at the patrol base prepared their quick reaction forces and left to help secure the blast area, leaving a small contingent of Marines and a Navy corpsman behind.
Due to the quick response of the ANA soldiers already on patrol, blast survivors were rushed to the near by patrol base for emergency life saving care. The victims were innocent passengers, men, women and children of all ages.
Petty Officer 3rd Class Brent Winnie, a Navy corpsman with the advisor team and (Oro Valley) native, was feeling ill following a woodworking project he was completing that day.
“I wasn’t feeling too well at the time, so I decided to go inside and take a Motrin because I had a headache. I was sitting inside and one of the Afghan soldiers comes in and says we have casualties coming in. At that point, we started spinning up,” said Winnie, a 2006 graduate of Canyon Del Oro High School in Oro Valley.
“The ANA had told us that three IEDs had gone off and there were lots of casualties. That’s all they said,” added Winnie, 22. “(The QRF team) went out and responded to it and me and four Marines from the team stayed back at the PB.”
As the QRF team was preparing to leave for the scene, an ANA pickup truck arrived to the base carrying five severely injured civilians in its bed. The Marines and soldiers quickly moved the patients into the medical tent inside the base.
“They were all urgent; it was pretty obvious off the bat,” said Winnie. “I immediately started triaging them and started trying to treat them. I was also trying to direct the Afghan Army medic as best I could. As I started treating (the patients), (Marines and soldiers) began to bring more casualties in. I’m not really sure how many I ended up treating. It was quite a bit and they were all pretty bad.”
More and more casualties continued to arrive from the blast site.
“Winnie was just flying around doing work. He did immediate triage and checked pulses to find out who was dead,” said Capt. Richard Porter, advisor team leader from Boulder, Colo. “He was just shouting out how many urgent casualties he had. It started with three, then five, then seven, and ended up with nine urgent casualties.”
Winnie began treating the patients the best he could with the limited supplies at his disposal. With the variety of injuries they had sustained, Winnie’s swift actions at diagnosing and treating the patients was instrumental in keeping them alive long enough to make it to the next stage of care.
“They had everything from partial amputations to compound fractures; they all had pretty severe (traumatic brain injuries),” said Winnie. “One guy, I’m pretty sure had a broken pelvis. I saw mainly fractures and internal bleeding in the brain. There was one guy who had his right leg below the knee … was just hamburger. I put a tourniquet on it. A lot of them were unconscious because of the blast. On the exam, I checked their pupils and they were unresponsive due to the suspected TBI. Immediately as they started coming in, I let the Marines know that we needed a (medevac) because they needed to get out of there pretty fast or else they were going to die.”
According to Porter, the helicopter that would medically evacuate the wounded was already inbound even without a full request. “They heard there was a mass casualty incident and took off already; it was good they did that, too.”
While waiting for the medevac to come in, one Marine mentioned to Winnie that he had prior experience as an emergency medical technician and jumped in to assist with the treatment.
“One of the Marines let me know he was trained as an EMT,” said Winnie. “He asked me what he could do, so, I started directing him…he was a big help. The day would have been a lot harder without him. It was already a pretty hard day.”
Sgt. Kevin Petersen, the team chief for the 1st Air Naval Gunfire Liaison Company, knew he could help and began working on the blast casualties.
“It was hard at first. I knew I could help but at the same time I didn’t want to get in the way of what Winnie had started or planned on doing,” said Petersen, a Thousand Oaks, Calif. native. “At first it didn’t seem like there were that many but more trucks came in and things got more and more hectic. We were fortunate we had enough Afghan soldiers there and translators to help us keep spines aligned and airways open. They could do the basic things so we could do triage and treat as many people as we could.”
Petersen said he was hesitant at first, even with his medical experience, but Winnie was able to help him get focused on the task at hand.
“I was a little flustered at first. He gave me simple instructions and told me what to do. He got me set straight,” added Petersen. “I really went off of Winnie’s direction. You really don’t see this stuff back in the United States that you see here. You get the head injuries but as for blast injuries…not so much. Having Winnie there to point me in the right direction and make sure I was doing the right thing was helping a lot.
“He had a million things going on all at once. He was telling the soldiers what to do, telling the Marines where to put everybody, doing quick initial assessments on the patients and performing initial and follow-on triage as he found problems with the patients…important things that save their lives.”
The helicopters were now minutes away from touching down outside their base. Now the patients had to be moved the 500 meters to the landing zone. The Marines and soldiers, in full protective gear and 100-degree heat, secured the area and began moving the patients to a bunker located close by.
“The (helicopters) came in pretty fast … I was amazed. I wasn’t ready for them,” said Winnie. “I started to dictate to the Marines which litters needed to go while simultaneously treating the other patients.”
When the first two helicopters, or “birds” landed, the Marines and soldiers began loading the casualties on for their movement to Camp Leatherneck, where they would receive more care for their injuries. Not everyone would make this flight though.
“We had enough casualties for the first two birds that arrived,” said Petersen. “There were too many casualties to keep on the bird, so we had to keep three people back. Everybody was urgent so nobody was more important than the last.”
The aircraft lifted from the dust of the landing zone and turned toward their destination. Work was not finished though for Winnie and Petersen. The last three patients still had to be evacuated and one of them was running out of time.
“As I was coming in off of the (landing zone) security to make sure the triage was still going okay, I saw ‘Doc’ Winnie working on one guy and Sgt. Petersen doing CPR on another one,” said Porter. “CPR is never a good thing to see when you are dealing with a trauma patient.”
The man Peterson was working on had stopped breathing moments before. Petersen tried desperately to clear his airway but the man’s wounds wouldn’t secede to this mission.
“We tried to give him an advanced airway but his body would resist,” said Petersen. “We started the CPR in hopes of bringing him back but it was just too late.”
After 10 rounds of CPR, the man had passed away. The Marines covered his body and, as respectfully as they could, added him to his fellow countrymen who lost their lives that day.
About three minutes later, the last of the birds landed and retreated with the remaining casualties.
“(Petersen) stopped me afterward and asked me, what did I do wrong and how’d I do?,” said Winnie. “And I was like, you did great; just having you there was support enough. He was like, well, I’m not used to seeing that stuff as an EMT. I couldn’t have asked more from him; he did a pretty good job.”
“I didn’t think I would be in a situation like this,” said Winnie. “I knew it was possible that I could be in a situation to handle nine or 10 casualties by myself, but I didn’t see it happening on this deployment. You should always be prepared for the worst because the worst does happen. I had a mass casualty by myself before, but nothing like this. This was a challenge, a real eye-opener. I basically had to calm myself down at first and realize that I will do the best I can with what I have and try to get as many people out alive as I could. There’s always things you wish you could have done better but I put my all into it. I take my job to heart and I want to help people.”
A few days have passed and the effects of the treatment performed by Winnie and his Marines undoubtedly left its mark on those who were saved that fateful day.
“It makes me happy to help people,” said Winnie. “As hard as it is sometimes to see people hurt, it’s pretty rewarding to actually give someone a second chance. Those people on that bus, if we weren’t there, all might have died. It feels good to say that they are alive because of something you did.”
“If he wasn’t there to organize, not just the Marines and the Afghan Army, myself included, the outcome of that day wouldn’t have been the same,” said Petersen.