"The issues and concerns identified represent opportunities to fine tune our SOPs and increase our abilities to manage future real world disasters/accidents."
Lt. Col. Gerald Nolan
The Army's response to the disaster on Green Ramp at Pope Air Force Base underscored the importance of not only readiness, resulting from training, planning, and experience, but also unit cohesiveness and teamwork, the outgrowths of leadership. Found more readily in the military community than in the private sector, these factors were the keys that turned an essentially tragic story into a victorious one.
The bravery of the heroes of Green Ramp emanated from an inner strength that was fortified by unit cohesiveness and regular training. Unit cohesiveness, which moves soldiers to fight for each other, rather than for money, the flag, or abstract ideals, propelled the paratroopers on Green Ramp to sacrifice life or limb to save their comrades. They applied the principles of regular trainingespecially in the areas of tactics, lifesaving, and medical evacuationin responding to the mass casualty. They performed the way they were trained to perform in combat.
Leadership was evident throughout the response. Officers and noncommissioned officers, commanders, and command sergeants major, supported by their spouses, became personally involved in the welfare of the 130 Green Ramp casualties and their families, as well as those who were not injured but affected by the crash. By taking charge of the response, unit leaders decisively influenced the process.
Being ready for the unexpected was part of Army life. Contingency planning, mass casualty exercises, and the experience gained in Panama, the Persian Gulf, Somalia, and Honduras enabled Womack Army Medical Center at Fort Bragg to respond effectively to the disaster. It was fortuitous that the timing of the accident, occurring at a change in hospital shifts, provided double staffing. Hospital personnel triaged the Green Ramp casualties, gave them life-supporting treatment, and sent them on to the next level of care within two hours. Medical evacuation crews subsequently transferred thirteen of the burn victims to regional hospitals. Although better labeling and access to crucial supplies would have speeded up emergency room care and the presence of cellular phones would have improved communications, Fort Bragg's medical professionals were essentially prepared to handle the crisis. General Peake's One AMEDD TeamWomack and field personnel who had trained togethermade it possible for the garrison to apply vast medical resources.
Fort Bragg's immediate establishment of command and control facilitated timely information flow, casualty accountability, and casualty and family assistance. The presence of XVIII Airborne Corps and 82d Airborne Division personnel at Womack's emergency operations center avoided duplication in tracking casualties. Confusion and parallel efforts in other instances, however, were inevitable because Fort Bragg's organizations unlike, for example, Fort Sam Houston's burn centerwere structured and their personnel trained to respond to multiple contingencies, rather than to specific situations, in peacetime and in war. A generic response plan, with clearly defined responsibilities for the garrison's emergency operations centers and casualty assistance hubs, might have helped a garrison that was crisis instead of mass casualty oriented. But Fort Bragg's agencies threw so many resources into the operation that their efforts, although perhaps less smooth than Fort Sam Houston's response, were ultimately successful.
The family support center at Womack was operating within one hour of the crash. The center, augmented by volunteer workers, arranged for food, housing, transportation, and counseling of the victims' family members and friends. Fort Bragg's various public affairs officers established a cooperative relationship with the press to provide, as one voice, accurate and timely information about the tragedy and, at the same time, to protect the privacy of the Fort Bragg soldier patients and their families. The overwhelming community response to the Green Ramp disaster strengthened the ties between Fort Bragg and Fayetteville, magnifying a powerful resource that the military might utilize in future emergencies.
Training, experience, and planning undergirded the important response of the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research, Brooke Army Medical Center, and Fort Sam Houston, all of which were mass casualty oriented. The aeromedical evacuation of the forty-three burn victims from Fort Bragg and Chapel Hill to San Antonio went smoothly under the watchful care of the expertly trained USAISR burn teams. Intensive training and teamwork enabled the USAISR
staff to successfully manage the Fort Bragg soldier patients. Two months after the accident only one paratrooper remained critical, while the others were either in satisfactory condition or convalescing at home.
The visits of high-ranking dignitaries boosted the morale of the Fort Bragg soldier patients, but the interruption of patient care and the increased risk of infection due to multiple visitors must be addressed in future mass casualty planning. The presence and assistance of the 82d Airborne Division liaison team, under the leadership of Captain Scudder, improved the morale of not only the injured paratroopers but also their families, thus greatly easing the burden of the USAISR staff. Further, a better mechanism to relieve the staff of the added responsibility of obtaining temporary personnel would have helped.
The Army's commitment to fund and maintain the USAISR burn unit must be credited with lessening the fatality rate of the Pope Air Force Base crash. More importantly, the burn unit continues to provide the expert assistance needed in future contingencies for dealing with large numbers of severely burned casualties.
Brooke's emergency preparedness plan empowered its medical, chaplain, family support, and public affairs staffs to respond quickly and forcefully to the crisis, and Fort Sam Houston's strategy for managing large numbers of casualties guided its agencies, working out of the Fort Sam Houston Family Assistance Center, to provide essential services and to interact with the local community to meet the needs of the burn victims and their families. By supporting and advising every one involved in the accident, chaplains contributed to emotional and spiritual healing. The public affairs officers' teamwork and cooperative relationship with the press protected the privacy of the Fort Bragg soldier patients and their families while affording opportunities for coverage. Despite the absence of compatible radio systems, information flowed more smoothly from Fort Sam Houston's one emergency operations center than from Fort Bragg's multiple centers.
All told the response to the Pope Air Force Base accident proved immensely successful, demonstrating the effectiveness of the USAISR's burn management and Brooke's emergency preparedness planning executed in conjunction with Fort Sam Houston's mass casualty strategy.
More than a year after the disaster on Green Ramp, the Army can look with pride on its compassionate, thoroughly professional, and ultimately triumphant response to the worst mass casualty situation in the history of Fort Bragg and Fort Sam Houston. Everyone pulled together and did their best, as people tend to do in a crisis involving mass casualties. The tragedy truly became a triumph of the spirit. But it also confirmed the importance of unit cohesiveness, training, experience, planning, and leadership. Those attributes kicked in and paid off, when most needed. The Army continues to critically examine the issues and concerns that have surfaced in the aftermath of the Pope Air Force Base accident, with the goal of fine-tuning procedures and improving skills to meet future challenges.