BY JESSICA JOHNSON Charleson Post and Courier
Marine was down in Iraq, his humvee bombed. The blast burned his face and hands, and shrapnel tore his right leg and eye. He needed help fast, and medics said only one hospital could take care of his injuries, and it's in Texas.
What happened next to Lance Cpl. Justin Ping showed the lengths the military will go to just to save one serviceman.
Capt. Adam Bingham, a C-17 pilot based in Charleston, said it was about a month into the 14th Airlift Squadron's deployment to Southwest Asia when he and other crew members learned they might need to fly a Marine 7,500 miles from Balad Air Base in Iraq to the Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio.
"I didn't think much of it," Bingham said. Patients either improve or become worse, sometimes dying in Iraq. And the details were sketchy.
Ping was riding through Fallujah on Sept. 28 when an explosive device triggered, burning and showering him with shrapnel. Army forces moved Ping from the Fallujah scene to Balad Air Base where Navy doctors stabilized him. The 20-year- old was ready for transport.
Around midnight, the 14th Airlift Squadron received word that the flight was a go. The mission included taking a near nosedive landing into Balad Air Base to avoid potential fire, transforming a C-17 into an emergency room, and an in-flight refueling to avoid a second landing.
A team of doctors monitored Ping during the 16-hour flight. The Marine was unconscious most of the flight, but he came to twice. Pilots walked to the cargo hold to thank him for his service.
''He really couldn't talk back,'' Bingham said. ''I told him we were going to get him to a better place and that we were glad he was with us.''
In the air, Ping remained stable, but his right eye was in danger. Pilots tried to go faster, asking for a direct route through European air space, explaining their medical mission. But a controller responded, ''Unable.''
It wasn't that foreign controllers were rude, said 1st Lt. Michael Campbell, a Charleston Air Force pilot . They just weren't going out of their way to find a way.
Above England at 26,000 feet, Capt. Charles '' Spanky'' Gilliam met a tanker successfully, taking on 110,000 pounds of fuel. With burns to 20 percent of his body, Ping could not survive two pressurization schedules. If the fueling would have failed, so would the mission.
Again they asked for a direct path and controllers responded, ''Not at this time.''
Pilots repeated the request for a direct route once they reached American air space and explained their medical emergency. And the controller responded they could have whatever they needed.
You could hear the emotion in the controller's voice when he found out, Campbell said. ''You could just tell he really cared as opposed to what we heard the whole way.''
Pilots said it was an emotional moment. '' There was an American spirit there that we will do whatever it takes for another American, and that's a great thing,'' Bingham said.
Ping was in San Antonio within 30 hours of his injury, which is almost unheard of, said Gen. Duncan McNabb, commander of Air Mobility. Normally, it takes three days to transfer a wounded soldier from Iraq to America.
As the careers of the C-17 crew progress, the story will be one they tell every crew they fly with and every organization they end up leading, Gilliam said.
We will tell this story to let everyone know how great a military and how great an Air Force we serve in,'' Gilliam said, '' It's just one of those missions.''
Gen. McNabb, based at Scott Air Force Base, Ill., retold their story Friday during the 2007 Air Warfare Symposium in Orlando, Fla. Bingham and Ping reunited during the speech.
Bingham said he wanted to see Ping again because he was touched by the young Marine's attitude when he phoned him just before the holidays. The soldier seemed more worried about the men overseas than his injuries.
He had been through a lot, and his mind was still on his fellow soldiers,'' Bingham said.
Ping said from his Orlando hotel room that he appreciates that the military did so much just for one person. ''I'm extremely grateful,'' Ping said. ''I wasn't all that aware when it happened, but when I look back on it, I realize it was quite a feat to get me back here as soon as they did.''
Ping's right arm, which was severely damaged in the blast, has healed better than doctors expected. The Washington state native has nearly full range of motion and can move all his fingers. Doctors saved Ping's right eye but ultimately could not save the retina. Despite flawed vision, Ping remains in positive spirits. His left eye is fine and burns have healed. ''It's not so bad,'' he said. ''It could have been a whole lot worse.''
So I think you need to give Kudos and a Major Shout Out to crews of Charleston's 14th Airlift Squadron 437 Airlift Wing aka "The Pelicans"....