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September 12, 2005—Lt. Gen. George Peach Taylor Jr. has overseen the Air Force Medical Service from the mountains of Afghanistan to the battlefields of Iraq. Yet, the subject that dominated his presentation during AFA's 2005 Air & Space Conference was the massive humanitarian effort behind Hurricane Katrina.

The transformation of the Air Force medical service, Taylor said, has been on display for the world to see.

The expeditionary medical capability USAF has developed to meet the changing needs of today’s wars also serves as the platform for peacetime disasters. In this effort, said Taylor, “Every one airman is hugely important.”

Over the past few years, air force medicine has become smaller and moved forward towards the battlefield, with the air evacuation process beginning the moment an airman, soldier, marine, or sailor is wounded in the field.

“Only the Air Force has modularity in its medics,” Taylor said, emphasizing the global reach and tailored capability of the service’s medical corps.

Iraq tested advances made in aeromedical evacuation and forward medical capability. “We have the ability to rapidly move people from forward areas after surgery to rear areas, where years ago it was much more common to wait up to seven days to move wounded,” said Taylor.

Operation Iraqi Freedom tested the skill of the Air Force’s medical community—with more than 5,000 patients “in the system” at the peak in 2003, said Taylor. He compared that experience to the medical response after Hurricane Katrina, which he saw up close on a visit to New Orleans last Saturday.

Taylor said he was most impressed by the teamwork of the service’s medical forces. “We are a model for a total team of active, Reserve, and Air National Guard medics, nurses, and support staff,” he said.

“After 9/11,” he explained, “we developed a standard group of assets that are prepared to deploy in the event of disaster, and Katrina tested the resources like never before.”

Taylor said that Monday night when Katrina made landfall, USAF had its medical rapid reaction force on call. He recalled the Air Force Chief of Staff, Gen. John P. Jumper, saying, “There shouldn’t be any capability we’re not throwing at the coast.”

Taylor noted that when the USAF medical teams poured into the New Orleans airport, “There was noting but people on stretchers as far as the eye could see.”

As word got out about the medical force, he said, the airport became the hub of a massive aeromedical evacuation effort. Triage patients had to be separated from normal patients, and critical patients had to be identified and flown to hospitals across the country.

At its peak, two C-130s were taking off every 90 minutes flying patients to their destinations. An estimated 90 medics processed more than 2,000 patients in the space of 24 hours, Taylor said. He estimated that 566 medics took part in all the work—251 of those were Air National Guard.

“Human life is perishable, and you can’t have delays in the system,” Taylor said. There is no question in his mind, he said, that the medical community will “spend the next year going over [the Katrina response].”

Taylor said that Katrina showed the excellence of the expeditionary airmen that comprise the medical service, but he added that “whether you’re going to Kandahar or New Orleans” Air Force medics “bring great professionalism, great discipline, and talent to chaos.”