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US Army rejects argument to arm medevac helicopters

The U.S. Army is disputing assertions that putting weapons on medical evacuation helicopters could improve the survival rate of soldiers fighting in Afghanistan after the death last September of an Army specialist who had to wait for transport after stepping on an explosive.

Concerns about the evacuation of Spec. Chazray C. Clark have been raised by an Internet blogger, Michael Yon, who had been embedded with Clark's unit, and by Missouri Congressman Tim Akin, who earlier this week wrote a letter to Defense Secretary Leon Panetta, questioning the army's policy of using only unarmed medevac helicopters. Those medevacs require an armed escort, which can lead to delays because of the high demand for helicopters.

“Any policy commitment that would impede even a single wounded soldier or Marine from receiving medical care in the least amount of time possible is simply unacceptable,” said Akin in his letter. “The medical staff in Afghanistan is courageous and is providing the best possible care for wounded service members. Unfortunately, bureaucrats in the Pentagon are delaying this care needlessly. If there is one thing we have learned in combat medicine in recent years, it is that quickly getting medical care is crucial. This policy must be corrected.”

Clark's legs and one arm were blown off by a bomb he stepped on. It was reported that he had to wait at least 30 minutes and possibly up to 40 minutes for the armed escort. The 24-year-old from Ecorse, Mich., died about an hour after arriving at a military field hospital.

Akin asserts that Army medevacs should be armed, the same way the Air Force and British allies handle the transport of their wounded service members.

"I cannot state with certainty whether or not Specialist Clark's life would have been saved by getting him to Kandahar sooner," Akin said. "However, we do know that minutes after a battlefield wound are crucial and getting the wounded to proper medical care rapidly is vital."

The Army, however, is disputing the assertion that an armed medevac would improve survival rates for wounded soldiers. The  tradition of using unarmed helicopters dates back to the Vietnam war, apparently in support of the Geneva Convention. Instead of bearing weapons, the choppers display the Red Cross symbol, which the Army contends has been successful at keeping the enemy from targeting them.

Specifically, the Army contends that even an armed medical evacuation helicopter would have had to wait for another armed helicopter escort to provide top cover while on the ground. Even the most heavily armed attack helicopters always travel in pairs, no matter what the mission, the Army says.

Also, adding gunners with weapons and ammunition would add weight and take up space on the helicopters, limiting the space for stretchers and impeding their ability to operate at higher altitudes, according to the Army.

Finally, the Army claims that the 92 percent survival rate for badly wounded soldiers in Afghanistan is the highest in the military's history, in part because of the performance of the unarmed helicopter transports.

In the case of Clark, the Army acknowledged that the ideal amount of time for getting a wounded soldier from the field to hospital is 30 minutes.  But an Army official said he arrived within 59 minutes, the so-called golden hour for survival, and received advanced medical attention on the flight.

This post includes reporting by NBC News chief Pentagon correspondent Jim Miklaszewski and msnb.com staff.

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