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Calif. flight medic finishes 3rd tour in Afghanistan

For the last year he was Sgt. 1st Class with a National Guard MEDEVAC unit, transporting critically injured soldiers from the battlefield to field surgical teams and hospitals

Megan Hansen
The Marin Independent Journal, Novato, Calif.

SAN RAFAEL, Calif. — San Rafael Firefighter/Paramedic Dave Cornell, 51, has dedicated his life to serving others and recently returned from his third tour of duty in Afghanistan.

For the last year he was Sgt. 1st Class with a Modern Helicopter Medical Evacuation, or MEDEVAC, unit in the National Guard, transporting critically injured soldiers from the battlefield to field surgical teams and hospitals. Most of the injuries he treated were from improvised explosive devices and gunshots.

"We were landing in the dust and dirt, and most of the time we'd go out and meet the patient if they were really bad off," Cornell said. "If we could get to the patient, we had an excellent 48-hour survival rate."

Ever since he was a child, the Auburn resident has dreamed of being a soldier and a firefighter. He joined the Army when he was 17, eventually becoming an Army Special Forces medic. After getting fed up with the bureaucracy involved with launching missions, Cornell said he opted to change paths.

"If I can't shoot bad guys and get it over with, I'll do the second best mission, which is MEDEVAC," Cornell said.

During his three tours in the deserts of Afghanistan with Charlie Company 1-168th, Cornell served alongside many of the same 25 men. He said these men saved countless lives and made sleeping in tents and eating slop bearable.

"For me, it's all an adrenaline rush and working with a tight group of guys. We go out there and try to make somebody's worse day better," Cornell said.

But that doesn't mean his helicopter missions were by any means easy. While he has seen a lot of blood and gore in his day, Cornell said the carnage could be overwhelming at times.

"There was one, a guy extensively burned. We all knew he was going to die, but we were able to get him back to the states to have contact with his family," Cornell said.

Capt. Andrew Wagner, of Reno, Nevada, served as Cornell's commander during his last Afghanistan tour. He said Cornell is a very direct, no nonsense person who takes his job seriously.

"He's very passionate about everything he does in the flight craft and working with the patients," Wagner said. "One of his big focuses is training the junior medics."

Despite his intensity, Wagner said Cornell does know how to have fun.

"He's got an off-the-wall sense of humor. He's always pushing the envelope when it comes to jokes," Wagner said.

When not deployed or working for the San Rafael Fire Department, where he has been for nearly eight years, Cornell works in the emergency room at Kaiser Permanente in San Rafael about once a week. He is also a flight nurse with CALSTAR, a nonprofit regional air ambulance service.

Cornell's background as a highly trained nurse and paramedic lead him to advocate MEDEVAC flight medics be trained as paramedics and not just certified baseline emergency medical technicians. The Army increased schooling for flight medics in 2012.

But unlike a standard medic who is fresh out of high school and may have never touched a patient, Cornell has years of critical care experience under his belt.

"I'm in a unique position where I have the skills the Army doesn't necessarily teach," Cornell said. "I can teach what I know on the critical care side to our guys."

At the fire station, Cornell is known for his medical insight and world experience.

San Rafael fire Battalion Chief Jeff Buscher said Cornell was missed when he was in Afghanistan.

"I'm very happy to have him back," Buscher said. "It's very timely because of the turnover in the department. We're able to tap into his experience both in medical and leadership to help transition our new folks."

Cornell doesn't plan to deploy to Afghanistan again, saying he's getting too old for such missions. When asked why he has been involved in so many community-serving activities over the years, he had one answer.

"It's just what I do," he said.

McClatchy-Tribune News Service

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