MARCH AIR RESERVE BASE, Calif. --
They called Iraq's Camp Anaconda "Mortaritaville." On April 10, 2004, Tech. Sgt. Matthew Blonde found out why.
He and another medical technician were walking back to their tent after their shift ended at the hospital when a mortar whooshed overhead, flashing as it exploded into a tent a few hundred yards away.
Sergeant Blonde remembers dashing into his tent, shaking a doctor awake and grabbing emergency equipment before running toward the damaged tent.
"You could see the smoke billowing out of the tent and a giant hole near the front entrance," said Sergeant Blonde.
The inside of the tent was filled with a thick, dark smoke that was heavy with the stench of sulfur. He crouched as he made his way toward the rear so he could see and breathe.
After pulling one critically injured Airman out, Sergeant Blonde went back in, further to the back this time. There, he found Airman 1st Class Scott Palomino, who was missing a foot and going into shock.
"I remember him grabbing me, like out of a movie," said Sergeant Blonde. "He had a hold of my shirt and hand and he said, 'I don't want to die. Don't let me die.'"
Airman Palomino survived and has since gone on to run marathons with a prosthetic leg, said Sergeant Blonde, who searched the Internet hoping to learn his former patient had received good care and rehabilitation.
That is just one instance of the compassion and respect Sergeant Blonde has for each of the thousands of critically injured patients he treats. Saving lives is the heart and soul of who Sergeant Blonde is, and that has not gone unnoticed.
Sergeant Blonde, 452nd Aeromedical Staging Squadron manager for the Critical Care Aeromedical Transport Team program, will travel from his home in Gilbert, Ariz., to Washington, D.C., May 19 to accept the PenFed Military Hero Award at the 2011 Night of Heroes Gala.
The Pentagon Federal Credit Union Foundation, a nonprofit national charity working to fill the unmet needs of military personnel and their families, honors a group of service members each year. This year's theme is "Honoring our wounded military heroes and the heroes of the medical community who provide the continuum of care from battlefield to homefront."
"Tech. Sgt. Matt Blonde represents the best of who we are," said Col. Robert J. Weisenberger, 452nd Medical Group commander. "Despite the heavy physical and emotional price that comes with caring for our wounded warriors, Matt has repeatedly volunteered for the most difficult assignments since 9/11."
The colonel also recognizes Sergeant Blonde's wife of 16 years, Nicole, and their two sons for their tremendous sacrifice and support during Matt's five deployments in the last seven years.
"They have earned full and equal shares of this very special award," said Colonel Weisenberger.
Nicole began sacrificing less than a year after she began dating Sergeant Blonde, who was attending junior college at the time. Their first separation occurred when he left for basic training.
"I was directionless, not going anywhere," said Sergeant Blonde. "I saw an Air Force commercial on TV and about two hours after that I was in the recruiter's office."
Although he had earned an EMT certification during college, Sergeant Blonde began his Air Force career in the maintenance field as a weapons specialist at Luke Air Force Base, Ariz.
When his four-year enlistment was up in 1999, Sergeant Blonde talked with a Reserve recruiter as part of his out-processing checklist. While on active duty, Sergeant Blonde had been moonlighting for a local ambulance company, and the recruiter suggested he consider a career in the medical field.
Sergeant Blonde wasn't familiar with the Reserve's medical jobs but a photo of the recruiter in a flight suit next to a plane piqued his interest.
"He told me that he used to be in the aeromedical field," Sergeant Blonde said. "I told him I wanted to do that."
IN THE RESERVE
Sergeant Blonde made the transition to the Reserve and re-trained as a medical technician. For the next five years, he honed his skills on drill weekends at Luke AFB.
Sergeant Blonde put his training to the test during his first deployment in 2004. His job, to administer Smallpox vaccines, was his primary mission, but he yearned to do more.
"I wanted to go in and assist in the OR (operating room)," he said.
Sergeant Blonde had his opportunity to help when a young Soldier arrived wounded from a rocket attack in Afghanistan. He assisted by cleaning the man's injuries from fragmentation and debris.
"He had wounds all over his back, like Swiss cheese," Sergeant Blonde said. "It took me two hours to wash him out."
At the time, the Soldier was the only patient in the hospital, so Sergeant Blonde was able to sit with him until he woke up. He said the man's first question was if he was going to be okay and when he could go back to fighting. The man's desire to return to his fellow Soldiers still moves Sergeant Blonde.
"I was completely envious of him at that moment. Not of his injuries, but of his dedication, service, loyalty, patriotism," Sergeant Blonde said. "From that point on I knew what patriotism was, and I had it."
During Sergeant Blonde's second deployment, he saw an increase in patients arriving from "down range." By his third, he was down range also, where he found himself being a first responder in emergencies like the mortar attack in tent city at Camp Anaconda.
With the injuries becoming increasingly life-threatening, Sergeant Blonde decided he wanted to do more to help his patients. When he returned from deployment and resumed his civilian position at Banner Desert Medical Center, in Mesa, Ariz., he trained to become a respiratory therapist.
"He has a keen eye and is very respectful, in a non-confrontational, collegiate way when he brings things to my attention that I may have missed," said Dr. Jayson Luma, medical trauma director and ER Pediatric attending physician at the hospital. "Anytime I walk on my shift and see him around the corner, I'm happy that my night will go that much smoother."
Sergeant Blonde's fourth deployment, his first as a respiratory therapist, was to Balad Air Base, Iraq.
He vividly recalls his first patient who was carried in from the helicopter pad on a NATO gurney. Inside the hospital, the floor was sticky with congealed blood and the air was hot and stifling.
"The back of his head was completely open. His brains looked like they were eggs being shaken onto the floor," Sergeant Blonde said. "The doc told me to cut the bandages off so we could see everything that was going on. When I did, it was like Jiffy Pop."
Sergeant Blonde compared his experiences at the hospital at Balad to what he had seen in Vietnam-era trauma books. The pace during the deployment remained high and his team continued to treat mass casualties, which sometimes included Iraqi adults and children.
"This was my first time dealing directly with insurgents; the bad guys and the good guys," he said. I have tons of experience with trauma, but I brought more of it home this time--the memories, the visual experiences."
Following his fourth deployment, Sergeant Blonde said he wanted to be a bigger part of the decision-making process for his military patients, so he enrolled in the two-year Critical Care Air Transport Team Basic Flight Physiology training and Advance CCATT Trauma Sustainment Course.
JOINING THE CCAT TEAM
As a critical care team member, Sergeant Blonde applies his respiratory therapy skills to help patients breathe while they are transported from the theater of operations to advanced medical care in a more stable environment. When he takes over someone's breathing, it affects every system in their body, so he takes blood samples, reads them, then adjusts the ventilator settings continually, he said. His first deployment as a critical care team member was last winter.
"He's very good at organizing and interacting with all the echelons of care on a CCAT team, trauma center, or forward operating base," said Lt. Col. Chris Ryan, a flight surgeon and CCATT director with the 302nd Aeromedical Staging Squadron, Peterson AFB, Colo.
Colonel Ryan, who was deployed to Kandahar Air Base, Afghanistan, with Sergeant Blonde, said the sergeant thinks independently, which is an important skill on a critical-care team, especially when there are multiple patients.
"He's relaxed under pretty stressful situations. He helps put the patients and anyone he works with at ease," said Colonel Ryan.
"He's a very humble hero," the colonel continued. "It's very appropriate that he's getting this (PenFed) award."
Sergeant Blonde returned from his fifth deployment last spring and is glad to be spending some quality time with his family. His sons, Max, 11, and Ben, 8, were young when he first started to deploy and he is worried about how they will handle future deployments.
"The next time it will be harder for them," he said. "Max is sensitive and very quiet, like me. He told one of his friends, 'My dad is coming home.' One of the kids said, 'If he doesn't get killed.' That's the kind of thing I worry about."
Being a father, Sergeant Blonde has a special compassion for the children he treats on his deployments. He remembers Sarah, a critically injured Iraqi girl, who came to the clinic with shrapnel in her skull during his fourth deployment.
"She had suffered a pretty bad stroke, leaving her unable to speak, clear her own airway or hold her head up effectively," he said. "I spent a good week in ICU with Sarah and became very attached."
The hospital clinic was full and the staff eventually had to place a breathing tube in Sarah's neck and release her.
"It's unlikely she is still alive," he said. "To this day I still carry her picture in my wallet."
Sergeant Blonde's military and civilian jobs have always been closely connected. Without the hours of critical patient care in the emergency room and intensive care unit at Banner Hospital, he said he would not be able to maintain the 800 hours of managed critical patient care the Air Force requires for all critical-care team members over a two-year period.
Additionally, the level of stress he has experienced in his military career benefits his U.S. patients.
"The people I work with in the civilian world handle stress at a different level than I do," he said. "There is nothing at my hospital that can be thrown at me that will challenge me, other than child abuse. I can't stand that."
Sergeant Blonde said he hopes to run the pediatric trauma team at a civilian hospital in the future. He's also considering going back to school to become a physician's assistant.
From administering vaccines to providing critical care, Sergeant Blonde has experience with almost all phases of the Defense Department's continuum of care from the battlefield to reintegration.
But for him, it's all about helping those who he believes have contributed to society in a greater way. He calls his work gratifying and says treating wounded warriors is an honor.
Knowing the outcome of his former patients, like Airman Palomino, helps Sergeant Blonde have closure and lets him know he's helped a brother-in-arms survive.
Airman Palomino has not seen Sergeant Blonde since the day of the mortar attack, but he asked for one small message to be passed along to him, "Thank you for being there."