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La Grande physician heads to Middle East for sixth combat search and rescue deployment

Hospital news | Wednesday, November 12, 2008
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Contact: Mardi Ford

John Page says his father did not talk much about his experiences as a navy corpsman in World War II­­—especially about taking part in the first wave at the Battle of Iwo Jima.

One bit of wisdom the La Grande physician’s dad did pass on, however, was that wearing a big red cross on one’s helmet makes a better bull’s eye than a talisman.

Page contends that if the logic of taking out medical help for wounded warriors, who, once treated, may return to fight another day, was understood more than 60 years ago by an enemy bound by the Geneva Convention, it is even more ascribed to in a post 9-11 world by terrorists who hate America.

Page, an ER doc at Grande Ronde Hospital, is also a lieutenant colonel with the Air Force Reserve. Last week, he headed for a second combat search and rescue deployment to Afghanistan, a military hotbed in the region as Iraq has become more stabilized.

Page finished his rotation in the ER Friday, Oct. 17, while already on active duty status. He is now headed overseas for a second two-month deployment with Portland’s 304th Rescue Squadron, part of a larger deployment coming out of Patrick Air Force Base in Florida.
“Well, they say it’s a two-month deployment,” he adds, figuring he’ll be home for Christmas. “But we’re talking about the military, so they could keep us longer. Or ship us back earlier.”

Since becoming a member of the Reserve nine years ago, Page’s deployment to Afghanistan marks his sixth assignment to the Middle East and second to Afghanistan. These missions have helped Page realize a long-held desire to serve his country in this way. With eager and obvious anticipation, he talks about the aircraft, the crew and even the danger. He says combat search and rescue is the greatest mission in the military today.

“I come from a very patriotic family, and I always felt like I had missed an opportunity to serve my country in the military,” he says.

But in 1999, at 45-years old, he discovered that physicians were sorely needed by the military, and that he could still be commissioned into the medical corps. To become an Air Force flight surgeon, he had to pass the flight physical, take flight training and earn his wings.

He now serves as the medical supervisor aboard an HH-60G Pave Hawk. The crew’s primary missions are conducted into hostile environments, often at night. When needed, they are backed by an escort of U.S. Army Apache helicopters. Once the rescued are on board the Pave Hawk, the smaller, more highly armed and maneuverable Apaches will fly in to accompany the rescue team back to safety.

The Pave Hawk is a highly modified version of the Army Black Hawk helicopter, Page says. It features upgraded communications and navigation systems with inertial navigation, global positioning and Doppler navigation, as well as satellite communications.

Pave Hawks also have an automatic flight control system, utilizes the latest in night vision technology and an infrared system that greatly enhances night-time, low-flying operations. They are equipped with color-screen weather radar and an engine/rotor blade anti-ice system that gives the craft adverse weather capabilities.
Pave Hawk mission equipment includes a retractable in-flight refueling probe, internal auxiliary fuel tanks, two.50 caliber machineguns and an 8,000-pound capacity cargo hook.

Combat enhancements include a radar warning receiver, infrared jammer and a countermeasure dispensing system.

“Our mission is not to engage in offensive action, but we are equipped to defend ourselves,” Page says.

The crew consists of two pilots, one flight engineer and a gunner. The medical team usually consists of two pararescuemen—who Page describes as an interesting combination of certified paramedics and highly-skilled Special Forces operators. It is their job to jump out of the helicopter, find the downed personnel and get them back into the aircraft to be assessed and treated by the medical supervisor, which is what Page does. It’s like working in a high-stress emergency room situation while flying through the air, often at night, under combat conditions.

“It’s the perfect military assignment for an ER doc,” says Page.

Although his biggest concerns are for the worry and strain his absence places on his family, he does not worry about his personal safety or death.

“There are a lot worse ways to meet your end. Getting hit by a drunk driver, or falling asleep driving home after a long hospital shift, for example,” Page says with a grin.
“Anyway, my faith as a Christian tells me that I’m not going to live one day longer or less than God intends. So I just don’t worry about it.”