BAGHDAD, Nov. 2 (UPI) -- From the air, the Chinook transport helicopter looks flattened. It doesn't look like a helicopter at all, and considering that the 159 Medivac helicopter I'm riding in was supposed to be headed to a roadside bomb explosion, it doesn't occur to me that the mess 400 feet below us is unusual.
I'm half-asleep in the back of the Blackhawk after riding on about a dozen such missions over the previous 36 hours. It's about 9:30 a.m. on Sunday, and I'd returned from the last mission just over six hours ago.
As we near the scene, it's clear that something big is happening below us. There are 6 or 8 choppers already on the ground. Sitting in the back of the Blackhawk without a headset to listen to the two pilots, medic and crew chief that fly the missions, I had no idea what was going on.
It did not take long, however, for reality to sink in, when we touch down about a minute later some 30 kilometers (about 19 miles) southwest of Fallujah. About a dozen men from the 82nd Airborne came running at our chopper as though we were bring them casualties. Usually, it's the other way around.
Minutes later an ambulance pulls up to the chopper with a very badly wounded young soldier inside. We happened to have on board this mission a visiting Air Force Flight Surgeon. He and the medic quickly start working on the wounded man, whose head wound is clearly serious. Within minutes, the doctor's performing CPR and the medic is trying to clear breathing tubes, which have filled with blood. This soldier is barely alive.
Under normal circumstances, the team would have flown to the 28 CSH Hospital in Baghdad, where there's a state-of-the-art medical facility for U.S. troops. But a Chinook filled with wounded had run out of fuel while landing there just moments before, leaving the landing pad unable to take any new helicopters until the crippled chopper was moved.
The soldier is dying. The flight commander, Capt. James Hannam, calls a surgical team at a field station near his airbase and decides to drop him there. As the medical team pulls the wounded soldier out of our chopper, his pulse stops, but he continues to breathe somewhat on his own.
We still don't know if he made it.
Returning to the airfield -- mine was on one of eight helicopters that responded to the call -- I learn of the story behind what I just witnessed. The Iraqi resistance hit a helicopter -- a huge Chinook that was full of soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division -- with a surface to air missile.
The 159 Medical Evacuation Company had agreed to let me "embed" with them for the weekend. I had complete access to their quarters, vehicles, personnel and missions, and so long as I stayed out of the way of them treating wounded, I could do or photograph anything I wanted.
The unit gets to any scene it's called to within 10 minutes of notification. They cover the region from Baghdad north to Balad and west to Ramadi. It's a lot of ground to cover even for a Blackhawk.
Within minutes of arriving back at the base, the handheld radio they lent me for the weekend goes off with a signal to go back to the choppers immediately. Back in the Blackhawk with Hannam and his team, we head back to the site of the crash. This time we land and get out on the scene, not at the temporary field station were we stopped at the first time.
Even knowing what I'm looking at this time and being on the ground next to the scene, I still don't recognize the mess as a helicopter. It could be a train wreck. For all I can tell, it's a charred mass of wreckage.
The rescuers on the ground have piled individual rucksacks and helmets of all the men who were on board into neat rows, which contrast the anarchy of the scene itself: a smoldering, flattened and sprawling pile of metallic rubble. Rescue workers -- Air Force search and rescue teams -- are crawling over the wreckage with acetylene torches, cutting through metal, looking for survivors and bodies.
I begin taking pictures of the desolate scene as an angry officer from the 82nd Airborne grabs me, demanding to know who I am and how I obtained permission from the Medivac's commander to accompany them. He tries to evict me from the crash site and his men eye my camera with ill intent. The Medivac crew intervenes and we are on our way again.
Hannam later tells me that we landed because they had requested a Medivac. But on arrival it became clear at the scene that there were only dead bodies. Part of the reason for the tension, Hannam explains, was not just my presence, but his refusal to remove two bodies from the scene.
"We only fly the living," he later tells me. "We can't have bodies on board, we might get a call and need the space. We can only help the living and those guys didn't like it."
True to his word, within minutes of being airborne again, we get another call. The scene we get to is a badly hurt soldier and a Humvee flipped upside down in the water. He is badly hurt as well and is flown to the 28 CSH Hospital.
When we return to base I ask Hannam what had happened to the soldier and the Humvee, was it enemy fire?
"I don't know. We don't know what happens half the time, we just show up and treat them," he said.