SAVING LIVES IN THE KILL ZONE
FOR the rest of the platoon, the message yelled over the radio almost could not have been worse: “We have a prior one casualty.”
But for Corporal Jody Tieche, the commander’s urgent “prior one” — short for “priority one’’ — call that stinking hot day in the Afghan desert was a chance to put years of medical training to use — and to save a life.
Commando Private Chad Elliott was lead scout and about 50 metres in front of the foot patrol when at least 20 Taliban fighters opened fire with AK47s and rocketpropelled grenade launchers.
One of the first shots sent a high velocity projectile from a 7.62mm round smashing into Elliott’s right femur. Simultaneously, a grenade exploded at his feet and sent sizzling metal fragments into his left arm and abdomen.
“Getting shot was basically like getting hit with a sledgehammer,” Elliott told News Corp Australia “then a hot searing pain afterwards.”
For Tieche and Elliott, it was a life-changing moment that perfectly encapsulates the role of Voodoo Medics. In an exclusive series, News Corp has gone inside the world of the little-known band of elite specialist soldiers who patch up the best of Australia’s fighting forces when the worst happens to them.
The 30-man platoon from the former 4th Battalion, Royal Australian Regiment was weeks into a vehicle based patrol through Uruzgan province in August 2007 when they picked up enemy activity on a ridge line above.
It was the Special Operations Task Group’s fourth rotation — and the traditional summer fighting season with 50C temperatures “like having a hair dryer to your face”.
The platoon from 4RAR Cdo’s Alpha Company was near the town of Khas Oruzgan when a burst of radio chatter indicated Taliban in fortified positions in the cliff face were preparing to attack.
The Australians were exposed on the valley floor, with little cover.
“Our platoon decided to do a dismounted patrol up to this ridge to do a bit of a recon,” Tieche said.
As they crept up the mountainside, “a hail of bullets and rocket fire” erupted. Elliott, then 25, copped the brunt of the ambush.
“I didn’t really know where it came from,” he recalled from his home at Avoca, north of Sydney.
“I just saw a cloud of dust come up around and bullets striking the ground. From there I knew my leg was broken. It just crumpled underneath me.”
The entry wound was the size of a fingernail but the round ripped a fist-sized hole through his buttock on the way out. The super fit soldier rapidly lost blood and went into shock.
Mates sprinted forward and dragged him behind a rock as the commandos fired at the enemy above them.
“They were shielding my body from gunfire,” Elliott said. A commando provided initial treatment and the call went out to send forward a Bushmaster armoured vehicle carrying the unit’s medic — codenamed “Kilo”.
“I heard it over the comms that we had a prior 1 casualty and we were off,” said Tieche.
“As soon as I peeled around the back of vehicle we had some small arms fire.
“It was all go. I remember thinking ‘wow this is such a movie scene in itself’.”
Isolated in the desert, the platoon could rely only on the equipment they had carried. Tieche used an antenna shot off a damaged vehicles as a splint for Elliott’s legs.
Despite his wounds, Elliott still had his mind on the enemy. “I managed to pull out my pistol and shoot off a few rounds … while I was being treated,” he said. It would be the last time Elliott fired his gun in combat.
Elliott was extracted to a “safe zone” where Tieche gave him intravenous fluids, checked his morphine and monitored his vital signs while they waited for an evacuation helicopter.
“Jody was very confident and relaxed — just your typical surfie, nothing would really worry him,” said Elliott. “He’s perfect as a medic.
“Jody’s treatment of me was perfect. If it wasn’t good I’d be dead right now.”
A US Blackhawk evacuated Elliott to the multinational base at Tarin Kowt, where American surgeons stabilised him before he was transferred
to Kandahar for further treatment, including removing shrapnel. He was then flown to Germany, where surgeons inserted a titanium rod to hold his hip and femur together, and finally home to Sydney’s North Shore Private Hospital.
It was six weeks before he walked again and six months before he redeployed.
“I was pretty keen to get back there. I’d done all of my rehab, my training and I’d been passed to deploy,” he said. “It wasn’t until I got over there that it really hit me. My body wasn’t quite up for it yet … but also mentally getting back out there was very hard.”
As Elliott was about to pass out of the gate at Tarin Kowt for his platoon’s first “gig” of the trip, he realised he “couldn’t do it”.
“It was extremely hard to leave the guys … it’s pretty much another family so to see them go out and go my separate way was very hard for me,” he said.
“That was the hardest decision of my life.”
Despite his injuries, Elliott has no regrets.
“I don’t think I’d change what happened,” he said. “It was a lifechanging event, character building, something that I’ll never forget. It’s changed me for the better.”
Elliott and Tieche were already firm friends, having trained together and finding they shared a love of surfing and ‘screamo’ bands. But a lifelong bond was formed in the dirt that day 11 years ago.
“He’s the person who saved my life,” Elliott said. “It’s a pretty special thing. Not many people would have that. Although we don’t travel and see each other we’ll always be friends. That will stay forever.”
MONDAY: A POINTLESS DEATH