Fairchild Airman prepares for a mission of a different kind

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. J.G. Buzanowski
  • 92nd Air Refueling Wing Public Affairs
Memorial Day is a time for remembrance; it'll certainly be a day one Airman here will never forget:

Senior Airman Emerald Ralston spent the day on an aeromedical evacuation flight from Germany to Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C. One of the patients was a combat medic who was injured in Iraq: Army Sgt. Ian Ralston, her brother.

Airman Ralston, a public affairs specialist, had been deployed to Afghanistan for about two weeks. Her job was to document and record the mission of joint and coalition efforts supporting the Afghan government. On a fateful day in late May, she was preparing for a mission, a convoy that would take her to her final deployment location, when she called home to check in.

"This was the third convoy I'd been preparing for," Airman Ralston said. "I'd already made it a habit to call home before my other trips, just to touch base with my parents. I think they appreciated getting the calls, since both their children were deployed at the same time."

But there were no words of encouragement to be had during this particular call. Airman Ralston's older brother had been caught in an explosion while in the gunner position of a Stryker armored combat vehicle. They'd driven under an overpass and an improvised explosive device went off. Sergeant Ralston took the brunt of the blast. This time, it was the combat medic who needed help.

By Memorial Day, both Ralstons were on their way to Landstuhl Army Medical Center in Germany. During the trip, Airman Ralston had nothing but time on her hands -- time to reflect, time to reminisce, time to worry.

"I had a lot of help getting from place to place, but the flights themselves were long," she said. "I didn't know what was actually wrong or the extent of his injuries, so not knowing was the worst part. All I wanted was to get to my brother."

Her brother was the reason Airman Ralston joined the military. He inspired her to want to serve her country. He'd told her about deployments, and she was excited to do her part.

Once in Germany, Airman Ralston met with Army Sgt. Jake Flores, one of her brother's friends from their first deployment together. Sergeant Flores had requested to be Sergeant Ralston's nurse.

"When they told me it was bad, I was hoping he was mangled," Sergeant Flores said. "We can fix mangled."

But once he'd seen how injured Sergeant Ralston was, reality set in.

"We can't fix this," he thought.

Shrapnel from the IED had penetrated his neck, broken his C2 vertebra, and lodged in his spinal cord, rendering him paralyzed from the neck down. Doctors couldn't operate for fear of making it worse. Rehabilitation was the only option.

After two and a half weeks, the Ralstons were transported to the Veterans Affairs Spinal Cord Injury Center in Minneapolis, Minn.

Since moving there, Sergeant Ralston has been in speech therapy and learned to breathe without a respirator for short periods of time. He's learned to operate a special wheelchair and can even use a computer. He's already made more progress than doctors thought possible.

"He's just stubborn, that's all," Airman Ralston said. "They told him all kinds of things he won't ever be able to do again. Ian disagrees."

Progress is steady for his recovery, but soon he'll have even more support.

Airman Ralston is in the midst of separating from the Air Force to become her brother's full-time care giver.

Their parents' home in Iowa is being renovated so Sergeant Ralston will be able to convalesce when he's ready to leave the center.

"I'm so proud of Ian for everything he's been able to do," Airman Ralston said. "He's my brother, but he's also my hero. We've had a lot of support from everyone involved, and our family is extremely grateful so many people stepped up to help us. I can't thank everyone enough."