March 29, 2011
From the GFD to Iraq
By Steven Fletcher Staff Writer
John "Polo" Cooney normally mans the ambulance when he's working with Gloucester's Fire Department.
On Friday, he'll travel back to Iraq and do the same — only there, he'll work primarily in the air.
Cooney serves in the Army National Guard as a crew chief with the 3/126 Airborne Regiment aboard one of the unit's 12 Black Hawk MEDEVAC helicopters. He's back for a few weeks leave after spending almost seven months overseas. His tour of duty ends in August.
Cooney's a Gloucester native, and paramedic for the fire department where he worked until his deployment last September.
He flew back to Cape Ann on March 15, and said he's glad to leave the desert behind.
"It's great, because in the desert you see dirt and the occasional tree, but I'm coming back here to friends, nice houses, and the ocean," he said. "It's nice to be home for a little while."
While he's been here, he said, he's been catching up with family and friends — and asked his girlfriend, Katharine Rios, to marry him.
In the service, he works a 24-hour shift as a crew chief, though between February and January, he and his unit worked instead for 22 days straight to fill in for troops heading home and recovering from injuries.
He said the crew sleeps when they can, yet aims to be ready for takeoff at a moment's notice — a task familiar to a Gloucester firefighting paramedic.
"It's just like being on the Fire Department," he said. "In the morning you get the craft ready, check the equipment and make sure everything's running correctly. When you get a call you go do it, come back and get ready to do it all over again."
Cooney said he's thankful most air ambulance calls come during the day — at least, he said they have lately.
Earlier on, most of the calls came later in the evening, before the U.S. Government shifted from Operation Iraqi Freedom to Operation New Dawn. New Dawn has begun withdrawing troops from the country, and places current troops in what Cooney describes as a training and advisory role.
"There's no more infantry kicking down doors, going house-to-house looking for people," he said. "Now it's more patrols, and shifting to the Iraqi army and Iraqi police.
As the military shifts roles in the country, Cooney said that they're building infrastructure and schools, in the country, and the Army Corps of Engineers has been showing its Iraqi counterpart how to construct bridges where temporary ones currently sit.
Cooney's unit also defers medical calls they know come from the Iraqi army to Iraq's own MEDEVAC units. If they don't know, his unit goes out anyway.
He said most of the Iraqi army works with American forces, but said that a small fraction of that army doesn't, and causes trouble for U.S. efforts in the region.
" "At the end of the day, I don't feel like we're wasting our time," said Cooney, "I feel like we're doing a good job over there. "
That shift requires staff, equipment, and vehicles to move from the military's outlying bases to the main bases.
That requires massive convoys to travel roads long known as treacherous, and convoys that encounter roadside bombs keeps his unit busy, Cooney said.
He added that U.S. troops today continue to face both traditional improvised explosives, and newer electronically detonated explosives. The new models look like copper cones packed with accelerant, which he said are easily disguised as rocks. The cones explode tightly and cause severe damage to vehicles.
"We've had some awful calls for those," he said, "The nice thing is, if it only hits in a square foot area, sometimes it will just take out an engine — but if it hits the cabin it takes out everything inside. They're hard to see ahead of time."
Though those calls make up only half of the work his unit does. Most of it, he said, resembles familiar ambulance work, like transporting people from hospitals to more advanced medical centers on main military bases. Cooney said he loves what he does overseas.
He doesn't fly the aircraft, but commands everything within the helicopter. A crew chief takes care of the aircraft and performs minor, day to day, repairs. He said, however, he could fly the craft in dire conditions.
"They're complex systems, but they're user friendly and they almost won't let you crash them," he said, about the helicopter.
Cooney said he's always wanted to do this kind of work, and while he worked with the Amherst Fire Department, he had a friend who flew medical Black Hawks. His friend introduced him to something he wanted to do, and he said if he hadn't, he'd be kicking himself down the road.
"I'm a paramedic firefighter for Gloucester, it's not much different," he said.
That is, he said, except for the flying and Iraq part.