Blood Brothers

MOUNTAIN HOME AIR FORCE BASE, Idaho -- Under 45,000 pounds of metal, a man went through his daily routine. He ducked and dodged his way around the edges of the aircraft, checking every crevice of the jet.  As he tightened the final bolt above him, he began his descent from inside the metal giant's wheel well. The last thing he expected was to be covered in his own blood.

When it comes to aircraft maintenance, everything must be exact. Simple miscalculations can create threats in the sky and on the ground. But those threats aren't always apparent and things like self-aid and buddy care can slip through the minds of those focused on keeping aircraft in the fight.

Even missing a step by a few inches can create a life-threatening situation. This was the case for Airman 1st Class Saul Vasquez, 366th Equipment Maintenance Squadron crew chief at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho. He said April 2 started out as any normal Thursday would.

"I was changing the nose landing gear actuator in the wheel well [of an F-15E Strike Eagle] when it happened," Vasquez said. "I was stepping down and I missed the stand."

He slipped off his stand, puncturing the skin just below his elbow on nothing more than a small bolt. He said he dangled by the sharp piece of metal while blood dripped onto his face before he lifted himself to the ground.

"When I looked down at my arm and I saw the blood shoot out and hit my coveralls, I knew just how bad this was," Vasquez said. "I grabbed it and just started to run for the hangar door."

He had torn his radial artery - one of two primary channels crucial to supplying blood to his arm. A tear to the radial artery can cause enough blood loss to cause death in a matter of minutes.

As he ran across the bay, his fellow airmen rushed to his side.

"I heard him fall and when I turned around, I saw him crawl out of the hole with blood all over his face," said Staff Sgt. Stephen Young, 414th Aircraft Maintenance Squadron crew chief. "He started bee-lining across the floor. My first thought was to stop the bleeding."

Airman 1st Class Saul Vasquez, 366th Equipment Maintenance Squadron phase inspection team member, holds an example of the bolt that tore his radial artery at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho. The incident inspired new initiatives to supply trauma kits across the base. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Connor J. Marth) Young grabbed the first thing he could find to absorb the blood: some clean soak up pads normally used to collect oil from leaking aircraft. Master Sgt. Jason Aaron, Maintenance Flight phase section chief, was sitting in his office when he heard the commotion.

"As I rounded my desk to see what was going on, I see this guy walking in front of me, blood gushing out of his forearm," Aaron said. "I cleared the door and squeezed his arm as tight as I could."

Aaron started barking out orders, trying to take control of the frantic situation.

"I had [Staff Sgt. Frankie Hearn II] grab a first aid kit and I told someone to call 911," he said. "But I knew there wasn't enough time for that."

Young and Aaron ran outside still clutching Vasquez's spurting arm. They needed a vehicle and fast, something Staff Sgt. Krystal Pearson and Senior Airman Violette Zeimet from the 366th EMS were able to help with.

"We saw Sergeant Pearson and Airman Zeimet pull up in a [pickup truck]," Aaron said. "We lifted him into the bed of the truck and we took off."

They were far from the Urgent Care Center and time was running out. They knew what had to be done to save his life.

"We realized we couldn't contain the bleeding with just direct pressure. I beat on the top of the truck and yelled 'GO FASTER!'" Aaron said. "[Young] and I switched positions in the cramped truck bed and I told Vasquez "This is going to hurt." I wrapped my belt around his arm and cranked it as tight as I possibly could."

Aaron said that despite the overwhelming pain Vasquez endured, he sat still and let them apply the tourniquet.

"At this point we could see the color leaving him and we were doing everything we could to keep him awake." Aaron said. "We started asking him stupid questions you know, 'What did you have for breakfast? What is your name?' and it was working."

The truck rocked them back and forth as it roared down Gunfighter Avenue, heading toward the UCC. In the middle of the turmoil, Vasquez said all he could think about was getting to the hospital.

"I had just gone through some pretty extensive training at the Air Advisor Academy and they always warned you about shock," Aaron said. "He demonstrated all of the signs of it."

As he shifted around in the truck bed Vasquez said he began to fade in and out of consciousness. He said time seemed to stand still as everything slowed down. But just as the world became stagnant, the truck slammed on its brakes.

Traumatic injuries can happen in seemingly harmless situations and often require more advanced forms of first response care. Basic first aid kits won't always fit the bill; leadership at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho are making the changes to supply traumatic aid kits to squadrons across the base. The new kits will be similarly outfitted to those used on deployments containing items such as tourniquets and a high volume of gauze. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Connor J. Marth) They made it.

"As soon as the truck stopped in front of the UCC we were yelling 'Get him out of this truck now!'" Aaron said. "[Vasquez] was trying to help us but Airman Zeimet grabbed both of his feet and ripped him out of that bed by herself! By the time somebody had a hand in to help her, she already had him out of the truck."

Vasquez said he could see the UCC staff run towards him as he stumbled toward the entrance. They knew this was going to be serious.

"They laid me on the bed and I'm scared as hell, I'm not going to lie," Vasquez said. "People were holding me down while Sergeant Aaron was next to me telling me I'm going to be alright. I wasn't so sure."

As the situation grew increasingly overwhelming, Vasquez said he started to listen to what the doctors were saying around him.

"I remember hearing 'I don't think we can perform that procedure here,' and that scared the hell out of me!" Vasquez explained. "I thought, 'Well who's going to do it!?'"

Aaron said he noticed just how terrifying everything was becoming for Vasquez.

"He was going into shock, his heart rate was crazy, and his blood pressure was dropping. There was only one thing I could do," Aaron said. "I very much invaded his personal space. I was about an inch from his face not letting him focus on anything but what I was saying to him."

Vasquez said he listened to every word out of Aaron's mouth and nothing else could get to him. When Aaron told him he was going to be just fine he thought, "Damn, I hope so."

Once he was stabilized, the UCC staff rushed him into surgery.

"We get into the surgery room and I looked up and there was stainless steel everywhere and tools all over the place." Vasquez laughed. "I thought I was in a horror movie."

Vasquez said that was the last thing he remembered at the UCC. The doctors had determined that he needed more advanced surgery to ensure his artery would heal. They made the call and a helicopter landed outside the hospital.

He awoke five hours later nearly 60 miles away at St. Alphonsos Medical Center in Nampa, Idaho.

More than 15 stiches laced his arm back together. The surgeons at St. Alphonsos had to create several incisions to access his battered arteries but had no trouble handling the situation.

"I opened my eyes and a big window was in front of me. I remember seeing mountains really close to the building and I thought, 'I'm not in Mountain Home anymore.'" Vasquez said. "I looked at my hand as I realized what happened to me. I started trying to move my fingers, making sure they all still worked. When they started moving I was like, 'Okay I'm good.'"

Filled with relief, Vasquez realized he had dodged a bullet: coming within minutes of losing his life. He said without the quick and confident actions of his wingmen, he might not be alive today.

Airman 1st Class Saul Vasquez, 366th Equipment Maintenance Squadron phase inspection team member, poses for a photo inside the front wheel well of an F-15E Strike Eagle at Mountain Home Air Force Base, Idaho, June 25, 2015. The opening, barely larger than a foot wide, is laden with pipes and wires requiring absolute precision to maneuver. A simple misstep caused Vasquez to tear his radial artery on one of the many obstacles inside the belly of the aircraft. (U.S. Air Force photo by Airman 1st Class Connor J. Marth) Aaron and Young said there's a lot to take away from what had happened. They now see military self-aid and buddy care training in a different light.

"You won't know how important SABC is until you have to use it," Aaron said. "Learn it, pay attention, and treat it as seriously as you can because it can be the difference in someone's life."

SABC revolves around resourcefulness, but there isn't always time to improvise medical tools from everyday materials.

"People say they won't need a trauma kit because they work in an office," Aaron said. "Got a paper cutter? Got a shredder? Is there a window that was manufactured wrong 20 years ago and suddenly decides to slam apart the next time a 50 mile per-hour wind hits? We just don't know when these things will happen and we need to be prepared."

Aaron said he won't rest until he sees a trauma kit in every workplace at every assignment he goes to. He doesn't want to think about what might have happened if he hadn't paid attention during his medical training. His quick response with an improvised tourniquet may have played the biggest role in keeping Vasquez alive.

Young said he's still surprised by how such a small bolt can cause so much damage. It just goes to show life-threatening situations aren't exclusive to gunfire and explosions.

Vasquez has tried to thank the two for being there for him when he needed them most, but every time he tries, he's met with a laugh and a crude joke in the true crew chief fashion.

"I've never thought about it as being a hero, I just told him 'Hey, you bled on me, so now we're blood brothers.'" Young said. "It doesn't matter that I was one of the people who saved him, my brother is still here, that's all that matters."

From day one of basic training, airmen are taught the importance of having their wingman's back. Aaron, Young, and the rest of the airmen who saved this young man's life will deny their heroism. To them, they did what they had to do - they did their job as wingmen.