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Mission Critical

A broken soldier's way home 

By Taylor Mirfendereski | Originally Published on | Nov. 23, 2014 













As our nation's longest war winds down in Afghanistan, thousands of military families can thank an elite group of U.S. Air Force medical providers for bringing their critically-wounded loved ones home alive. Those doctors, nurses and respiratory therapists were trained at the University of Cincinnati's Medical Center in a program largely modeled after the civilian hospital's life-saving methods.

WCPO followed the military medical workers from the Cincinnati classroom to Afghanistan's Bagram Airfield, where one team would be called on to save a man's life.


VIDEO: 'I'll remember looking into their eyes forever'

The video above contains content that may be graphic for some audiences (13:53)




They're on a mission: To take the most gravely injured soldiers out of war. When the 4 a.m. call comes, this medical team must decide if the critically-wounded man can be saved. The infection from a gunshot wound is growing worse. Will he be healthy enough to fly? Watch the video above to find out if he survives. 

UC Medical Center: 

Ground zero for Air Force medical training 

CINCINNATI -- Screams and gunfire pierced the quiet Afghanistan night, jolting Army Spc. Lance Leininger awake.


He did what every trained solider does in war: He ran to his position to fight back.


But before the South Lebanon man could make it to his post, the searing pain of one, two, three bullets tore through his body ripping through many of his vital organs.


Then the grenade blew up in his face.



Leininger was covered in blood. As he struggled to breathe, he prepared to join the more than 2,200 military men and women killed in America's longest war.


"It seemed like it was forever, waiting there, bleeding out. I was just ready to put all the suffering away," he said of the 2012 injuries.


"And that's when help came.''


Medics scooped the then 22-year-old up and performed emergency procedures in the back of a helicopter. He was gravely injured. Officials told his parents to expect the worst. Within days, Leininger was flown out of harm's way. He soon landed safely back on U.S. soil and was reunited with his parents.


Medics scooped the then 22-year-old up and performed emergency procedures in the back of a helicopter. He was gravely injured. Officials told his parents to expect the worst. 

Army Spc. Lance Leininger, 24, of South Lebanon recovers at a U.S. hospital after a Critical Care Air Transport team transported him home from Afghanistan in 2012. | Provided


Within days, Leininger was flown out of harm's way. He soon landed safely back on U.S. soil and was reunited with his parents.


It was a reunion more than 5,600 military families owe to Cincinnati-trained elite Air Force medical teams – the only people equipped to bring critically injured troops like Leininger back home.


'A Little Bit Of Cincinnati Flying Them Home On Every Mission'


Long before Leininger was reunited with his family, the medical team that kept him alive in flight went through rigorous training at the University of Cincinnati Medical Center – just 30 minutes from his hometown.


Welcome to the Center for Sustainment of Trauma and Readiness Skills.


This is the classroom and simulation center where more than 1,500 Air Force medical airmen and women have learned to perform emergency medicine on life-like mannequins before they are deployed to the battlefield.

The high-level military training is conducted on an undisclosed floor inside the civilian hospital in Mt. Auburn, where its $1.2 billion trauma center transforms into a military war zone about a dozen times a year. Military men and women, dressed in flight suits and camouflage uniforms, mingle among civilian doctors who roam the halls in scrubs. Top military officials occasionally visit the Air Force's $1.1 million operation here, too.


This center is one of just three such training sites where military doctors train and work alongside civilian doctors. 

Air Force Capt. Scott Abbott and his classmates prepare a fake patient for a simulated critical care flight at University of Cincinnati Medical Center on July 9, 2014. Taylor Mirfendereski | WCPO 


A breakdown of CCATT patients since 2001

It is the only spot where those military medical personnel are cleared to join the elite Critical Care Air Transport Teams, CCATT, who fly wounded soldiers, sailors, marines and airmen across the world.


And those same military teams are modeled largely after the hospital's life-saving methods that put an emergency doctor, nurse and respiratory therapist in ambulances decades ago to keep critically wounded civilians alive during transport. 


"If the truth actually be known, the whole concept of this CCATT team … represents the same kind of team I was taught to use back during my training here in Cincinnati," said Dr. Jay Johannigman, an Air Force colonel who now heads UC Medical Center's trauma and critical care center and is the man largely responsible for bringing the training to Cincinnati.


A series of realizations and recommendations largely borne out of lessons learned in the Gulf 

War in the mid-1990s put military doctors inside a civilian Houston hospital in 1999 to train. That program disbanded two years later.


At about the same time, Johannigman said he was working at the Pentagon when the Air Force was looking for other hospitals to jumpstart the Houston program: "I knew Cincinnati so well since I trained here and I was surrounded by a bunch of good people so really what we did was put our hand up and volunteered."


With that raise of the hand and medical commitment, the Cincinnati center was launched. The work there will continue indefinitely, he added.


"In its own unique way, Cincinnati has reached out and touched each of our significantly wounded soldiers during this conflict,'' the doctor said. "They have a little bit of Cincinnati flying them home on every mission."


Just each other and their training


At least 1,220 students have graduated from the Cincinnati course since 2003, according to the Air Force, which does not pay UC for the use of its hospital.


There are 18 military instructors and two administrators who work at the center. When they aren't teaching or on deployment, they treat critically injured civilians in the hospital's emergency rooms.



CLICK HERE TO READ THE REST OF THE STORY (with more photos, graphics and an interactive timeline). 

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