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Saber Strike turns to medevac mission for C-17 aircrew

Second Lt. Ryan Novack, the 36th Munitions Squadron production flight officer in charge, poses for a photo while being transferred for treatment. (Courtesy photo)

Second Lt. Ryan Novack, the 36th Munitions Squadron production flight officer in charge, poses for a photo while being transferred for treatment. (Courtesy photo)

TRAVIS AIR FORCE BASE, Calif. (AFNS) -- After a C-17 Globemaster III aircrew from the 21st Airlift Squadron at Travis Air Force Base took off June 10 for exercise Saber Strike 16, they ended up on a real-world emergency medical mission to help a fellow Airman.

The crew flew to Latvia in support of the exercise, involving more than 4,500 military members from 13 different NATO countries. After offloading cargo, the crew was sent to Naval Support Activity Souda Bay, Greece, and then to Kadena Air Base, Japan. When the crew arrived to the Kadena AB command post, they were given an unexpected mission package covered in sticky notes.

The crew was told an Airman needed to get to Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu, Hawaii, and if he didn’t arrive within 14 hours, there was a chance he would be paralyzed.

“I wanted to fly the C-17 because of the missions they are a part of,” said 1st Lt. Todd O’Brien, a 21st Airlift Squadron co-pilot. “It is normal for us to fly cargo that supports our efforts worldwide, but this mission was special. The crew was excited because this is what we joined the Air Force to do.”

Soon after the crew received the new mission plan, they realized the gravity of what they were about to accomplish.

“The mission was sobering, knowing that our actions would so greatly impact his life,” O’Brien said. “We were in a good mood, but were extremely focused on making sure we completed the mission well.”

O’Brien is a relatively new pilot, having only been part of the 21st AS since January.

“I felt fortunate to have this experience, it shifted my perspective,” he said. “We rarely have eyes on the outcome of the vehicles or cargo we transport, which made this case different.”

One thing that stood out to O’Brien was the teamwork between the aerial port at Kadena AB and the loadmasters.

“We showed up and they had made sure that the jet was completely loaded and ready to go with our initial cargo. This would have been fantastic, had we not had a new mission plan,” O’Brien said. “It took a great amount of coordination and communication between the loadmasters and the Kadena aerial port Airmen to get the initial cargo removed and the configuration of the C-17 changed.”

The crew faced many challenges with the new mission, from working on new diplomatic clearances to making calls to the right people.

“Everybody on the crew had to step up and make it happen,” he said.

The patient was 2nd Lt. Ryan Novack, the 36th Munitions Squadron production flight officer in charge, stationed at Anderson AB, Guam. Novack broke his back in a motocross accident and needed emergency surgery.

“A positive attitude is the quickest way to heal yourself,” Novack said. “If it wasn’t for my attitude, I don’t think I would be doing nearly so well. The nursing staff was so excited for me to move on at Tripler; they cheered me out of the ward. It was nice to have people so committed to keeping my spirits up and reminding me to be positive.

“This is one of the lowest points in my life, but I don’t think I have ever felt better in terms of spirit,” he added.

Novack was surprised to see how much of his Air Force family reached out to him.

“My Air Force Academy classmates and other graduates have all been in touch and my squadron in Guam has been sending me care packages and have been incredibly supportive,” Novack said. “My entire supervision came to see me. It was incredible to see everybody care so much about how I was doing.”

The C-17 crew has also reached out to Novack and is following his recovery.

“The entire crew was very well organized and accommodating,” Novack said. “Getting me out of Guam was a big step in getting me to doctors who could help me heal faster.”

Novack is doing well and was recently moved from Tripler to David Grant USAF Medical Center at Travis AFB on his way to the Rehabilitation Institute of Chicago to begin physical therapy. He hopes to recover quickly and return to his squadron at Anderson AB.

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