TOKYO – When the wounded soldier was loaded into the Black Hawk helicopter, Sgt. 1st Clbad Gopal Singh, on his last mission as a flight doctor, said a prayer. He did not believe that the man, who had received five shots, was going to survive.
"I could see right away that this guy would probably die in the next 15 minutes if we did not start working with him and the plane took off," said Singh, a physician in the 2nd Eighth Army Combat Aviation Brigade, stationed in Camp Humphreys in South Korea.
The evacuation team did not know it then, but his patient was a North Korean soldier. who had just launched for freedom through the Joint Security Area, the neutral section in the demilitarized zone where the enemy troops stand face to face.
The soldier, a 24-year-old boy named Oh Chong Song, was shot five times by North Korean border guards on November 13 when he ran across the line, but he managed to take shelter against a building on the south side.
He stayed there, in a pile of leaves, for as long as 30 minutes until the South Korean soldiers were able to crawl towards him and drag him to safety.
While they were doing it, Pfc. Karina Lopez, the radio operator of a Black Hawk UH-60 medical evacuation team that was on duty at Camp Casey, a US base on the southern side of the demilitarized zone, received a call saying that they might be needed for an evacuation medical
For more than six decades, US and South Korean troops have been coordinating in a confrontation with the communist north; the DMZ is your first line. Military leaders say that events like this underscore the importance of the alliance.
[ A dramatic video shows a North Korean soldier fleeing freedom ]
The crew was four days in a seven – day shift, on duty 24 hours – similar to those of firemen or ambulance teams – for medical emergencies.
The teams badigned to Camp Casey receive approximately three medical evacuation calls per month, usually to transfer a patient from a clinic near the border to a hospital. One of his most recent missions was to pick up a South Korean farmer who had been injured and take him to a hospital.
This time it was different.
The next call that López received summoned the crew to the Joint Security Area; They told him that a soldier had been shot. They arrived seven or eight minutes later, finding the medical staff on duty at the JSA waiting with the patient ready to be taken by helicopter.
It was when the soldier was loaded into the Black Hawk that Singh, who was starting his last month in South Korea and the Army, realized how serious his patient's injuries were.
"In fact, I recited a prayer because I saw the condition I was in," said Singh, 39, of San Antonio. "The pilots could probably say by my voice that I was in real danger of death."
The JSA staff had stopped much of the bleeding from the bullet wounds in the shoulder, chest and abdomen, but Oh was having difficulty breathing. He was trying to sit on one side, a sign that he might be taking air inside his chest from a wound.
[ A soldier escaped from North Korea fights for life after being shot through DMZ ]
Singh performed a decompression of needle chest, drilling the cavity the soldier's chest to allow air to escape inside. "I knew that if I did not do that I would probably die because once the cavity in his chest filled with air, he would push his heart and lung and everything, and he would not make it," he said.
When the helicopter rose and moved away, the soldier was still struggling with breathing and was in shock. His hands and feet were turning blue, and his pulse was weak.
In the front, drivers Nathan Gumm and Eric Tirro pressed the accelerator to the bottom.
"It's difficult because we can hear the level of concern in the doctor's voice," Gumm said. Spc. Carroll Moore, the team leader, added: "It was very intense, because he was working non-stop for more than 20 minutes trying to make sure this guy survives."
The helicopter crew focused on arriving at the Ajou University Hospital in southern Seoul. There, trauma surgeon Lee Cook-Jong was waiting for them.
"If it were not for his emergency measures, he would have died before reaching the hospital," Lee said later about the actions of the American crew.
The North Korean soldier is still in the hospital, but after several surgeries: he is constantly recovering. He told the doctor that he wanted to study law.
[ For the recovery of North Korean soldiers, the South Koreans are pinning their hopes on this doctor ]
South Korea has been using its propaganda speakers lined up to Throughout the demilitarized zone to relay messages to the north about Oh's medical condition – he suffered from pneumonia, hepatitis B and a serious parasitic worm infection when he arrived south.
North Korea has not yet responded to his defection, but his border guards have been seen digging and placing rocks along the area where Oh crossed, apparently to stop future desertion attempts.
It was not until after having landed at the Ajou hospital that the crew discovered that their patient was north Korean. Singh said he had suspected it because the man looked malnourished, but Oh had nothing in him to identify him as a North Korean.
"We received text messages from friends after we landed," Gumm said. "We really had no idea how, how big it was, it was already in the news when we disembarked."
Then he began to badimilate: what this man had risked and endured to escape.
"He was shot five times to be free, because of the possibility of a new life and an opportunity to live in South Korea," Singh said.
The team has not seen Oh since he left that day. The doctor, who ends his service in two weeks, has thought to congratulate the soldier.
"It's really a miracle, from the moment I saw him on the plane, I thought he was going to die," Singh said. "To be able to see it succeed, it has been a good feeling for all of us as a crew."
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