US & World

Like a flying ambulance: Air Force evacuates critically ill patients from St. Croix

Patients are evacuated from St. Croix by the 45th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron of Reserves based at Tampa's MacDill Air Force Base.
Patients are evacuated from St. Croix by the 45th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron of Reserves based at Tampa's MacDill Air Force Base.
The 927th Air Refueling Wing
Patients are evacuated from St. Croix by the 45th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron of Reserves based at Tampa's MacDill Air Force Base.
Military personnel in St. Croix prepare to load a patient for an evacuation flight to a hospital on the U.S. mainland.
The 927th Air Refueling Wing
Patients are evacuated from St. Croix by the 45th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron of Reserves based at Tampa's MacDill Air Force Base.
Master Sergeant Maria Ayala went on one of the first humanitarian missions to St. Croix without knowing the fate of her parents and sister living on the west end of Puerto Rico.
Bobbie O'Brien/American Homefront


Air Force Major Gavril Goodman was on one of the first humanitarian evacuation flights that landed in St. Croix five days after the category 5 hurricane destroyed the island's power grid.

They were told to expect 40 patients. Instead, there were 63, all with end stage renal disease.

"They were all on dialysis," Goodman said. "So after an extended period of time, these people become very, very sick."

All 63 patients were evacuated to Dobbins Air Reserve Base in Georgia where a team of seven doctors met the plane.

Goodman said the patients hugged her as they left. She will remember one man in particular.

"He actually asked to keep the blanket that we provided on the aircraft," Goodman said. "He said, 'I have nothing. May I please have this blanket? I lost everything.'"

Ofman credited his partner with packing his bags and leaving them and his car at Tampa International Airport, so he could go directly to MacDill when he landed. Ofman has served 21 years on active duty in the National Guard and Reserves. He is retiring in fewer than 40 days, but he'll take memories of his St. Croix mission with him.

"One of the daughters of a patient we were taking care of, I offered her a meal," he said,"and when she opened a lunch box of peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and some crackers and a bottle of water, she began to cry because it was her first whole meal."

"At that moment, you realized that they had nothing," Ofman said.

Family was also on the mind of Master Sergeant Marie Ayala, a mother, grandmother, and a civilian medical assistant who has served in the Reserves for 10 years. Alaya was on one of the first missions to St. Croix, all the time not knowing the fate of her own parents and sister who live on the west end of Puerto Rico.

"This is my mission to evacuate people in need," Ayala said. "Eventually, it's going to be my people, my Puerto Rican family."

Ayala did hear from her sister almost a week after Maria took out communications. She said her family is fine for now.

The 45th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron most likely will remain activated for weeks. So, there's a good chance that Ayala will indeed be part of the relief effort in her Puerto Rican homeland.

This story was produced by the American Homefront Project, a public media collaboration that reports on American military life and veterans. Funding comes from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting and the Bob Woodruff Foundation.