Lt. Col. Darrell Bogan: Air Force Flight Medic
Lt. Col. Bogan joined the Air Force reserves because he saw it as an opportunity to rise above tough circumstances growing up in Chicago. He became a flight medic, and thanks to the military, was the first person in the history of his family to graduate college.
I’m Ken Harbaugh, host of Warriors In Their Own Words. In partnership with the Honor Project, we’ve brought this podcast back at a time when our nation needs these stories more than ever.
Warriors in Their Own Words is our attempt to present an unvarnished, unsanitized truth of what we have asked of those who defend this nation. Thank you for listening, and by doing so, honoring those who have served.
Today, we’ll hear from LTC Darrell Bogan, who served as a flight medic in the US Air Force. He joined the military as a way to find opportunities beyond his tough neighborhood in Chicago, and credits that decision with allowing him to become the first person in the history of his family to graduate from college.
I'm a Lieutenant Colonel in the United States Air Force Reserve. I've been serving for 32 years.
So I am actually the first to join the air force in my family. I embarked on this path from seeing a commercial on television to join the reserves. I'm from Chicago and I grew up in a really rough neighborhood in Chicago, and I saw the military as an escape route to leave the community that I was in. And so I signed up to join. My cousin and I, we were both going to join together, but prior to him getting the opportunity to join, he was shot and killed in my neighborhood, just down the street from my home. And so that was even more motivation to change the circumstances that I was in.
I didn't discuss it with anybody outside the family. My family knew about it, and it wasn't something that I discussed with any of my friends or anybody, because I didn't want to be influenced by their impression of the military. A lot of folks felt and believed that for minorities who joined the military, that they're always the ones who were sent off to the front lines to die. And so I didn't want to be influenced by anybody else's decision, and so I didn't share it with them. I just talked with my family about it and once Lenny was killed, I was like, I got to go. And off I went.
I am extremely glad that I made that decision. It really changed my life, the trajectory of my life, because in Illinois, they have this program, it's called the Illinois Veterans Education Benefit Program where if you join the military and serve at least a year of active duty time, the state of Illinois would pay book, tuition, and fees. So I was able to go to college and to become the first in the history of my family to graduate college. And so that's what it afforded me. And I knew that there were a lot of benefits associated with being in the military, obviously the travel. I've traveled all over the world, and I've met so many people. And so I'm a strong supporter of it. I try to encourage young people to join, and I think it's a really good way of being a patriot to this country.
Particularly for me as an African American in this country, one of the things that I have experienced is when I'm in uniform, I am treated totally different than when I'm not in uniform. And I say that because it's not fully realized upon many people who look like me, the benefits of this country and feeling like we belong in this country. And so part of my wearing the uniform is proving that, hey, I love this country too, I'm willing to serve and to put my life on the line for this country too, I'm a patriot as well. And that is how it's been early on, but the definition of patriot has shifted, of the impression of what a patriot is has shifted in these past five years or so. And so it's a little convoluted of what a real patriot is now versus previously.
Immediately after high school, I worked. I had a summer job at the VA and I would see the various soldiers, amputees and very... It's medical conditions. And I always wanted to help. I've always been a helping person, I get that from my mom. She helps everybody. So I was like, "Wow, you know, I wish I knew how to, you know, provide that type of care." So when I signed up, I passed the ASVAB that said you can go into any career you want to go into. And I was like, oh, I want to try this medical thing. And so I became a medic air evac tech. And so we flew missions on the C-130 aircraft as an air evac tech. And so what motivated me was that summer I spent as a summer intern at the VA seeing all the wounded soldiers and just wanted to do my part to help.
So I grew up in this neighborhood where I saw a lot of violence shootings and beating, all sorts of things. And I just never knew what to do to help. Right? And so it may have had a role in my decision, but the primary goal was, how can I help these soldiers? But it very well may have, just wanting to be trained in emergency medicine was something that I wanted to do. So I don't know if Lenny had a direct impact. It could have had a small impact on that decision. It's 32 years ago. I do recall heavily that the VA, that job I had at the VA was a big influencer.
So you go off to basic training and then you go up in San Antonio, Lackland Air Force Base, and then you go to Sheppard Air Force Base. Back then you go to Sheppard Air Force Base for all your medical training, it's like a six month school, and you really learned to become an EMT so that you learn all of the basic parts of that. After that six months, then you do an orientation at a hospital. And so my first one was at David Grant Hospital at Travis. And what you're doing is you're doing a rotation through each section. So I got to work with geriatrics. I got to work with an OB and Med Surg, infectious disease. You get to get that hands-on experience, working at a clinic for about six months, and then you do a follow on at another clinic.
So I left David Grant and I went to Wright-Patterson in Ohio for another, additional six months of rotation. And there, I got to work in the psych ward and on various floors there, honing your skills. And then after that, you go off to the actual flying training to learn how to be a flight medic and learn the aircraft because you have to learn how to assemble the aircraft. You learn about decompression sickness and all the various altitude sickness. All that training comes into play as well. So it ends up being almost a two year training from basic training all the way through the end.
So what happens is you get on the aircraft, back then we were doing C-130s, now you do any aircraft. Any aircraft can be converted into a flying hospital. So you convert the aircraft into a flying hospital, you fly in, you load up patients, and you just stabilize them from point A to point B. So you get them on board and back then, a C-130, we can carry up to 72 patients and it's a five person crew. You have three med techs and two nurses and you load the patients up and you stabilize them from where you pick them up to where you drop them off. And it is just a lot of vital signs and checking their IV bags and all those types of things. You're keeping them alive until you get them to the next echelon of care.
You always kept a barf bag with you because it's a bumpy ride. It is not a comfortable ride at all. The plane gets cold. I's either super cold or super hot. And so what happens is you often strap yourself in, if you have a critical patient, you have to strap yourself to that litter and stay with that patient. So you can take off and land while standing, but the elements in the aircraft either fluctuate. It was either extremely cold, extremely hot, very, very bumpy. And especially when we would do tactical landings and coming in a short runway landings and those things. But we made it through it. It's really interesting.
Particularly for those critical patients, you have to really see it, how you strap... You put a strap around your waist and you strap yourself to the actual litter and you're standing, bracing yourself, as this plane is flying. And you know the tactical landings, how they come in and approach and they do a really quick bank turn and land and then stop in a very short period of time. So imagine the C-130 almost stopping, we would say, oh, it's stopping on a dime, was the term that we would use. And the C-130 could do that, you know what I mean? But you just have to make sure everything is secured and everything is tied down. And we did it, we practiced it a lot, so that when we had to do it, it just flowed.
You know as a reservist, we would go to Germany and it was actually in Germany and they were called JGO missions. It was the joint guardian operation missions that we would get on a C-130 and we'll fly from Germany down into Bosnia to either drop off equipment and then pick up patients and then fly them back to Germany, back to Ramstein, Landstuhl is not far from Ramstein. So it was housed in Germany, flying in and out. We weren't based in Bosnia, spending the night in Bosnia, we were based in Germany and would go down and fly those, what they called JGO missions down into Bosnia to pick up aircraft.
And I'll tell you what was interesting, is the first time we went in was seeing how they line the aircraft with the armor plates. There's this bulletproof armor they line aircraft with, and then everybody's wearing a flak vest, a bulletproof vest and you have your helmet on and everything. And so when the load master, so on the C-130, you have a five person crew, you have your pilot, co-pilot, your navigator, your engineer and the load master. And the load master controls the back part of the aircraft where we would set up everything. And when I saw the load master take his flak vest and actually sit on it, he didn't put it on, he sat on it and he goes, “If somebody's going to shoot it us it's going to come up, and so I would rather sit on mine and have of my hind legs protected then wearing it up here.” And so I followed his lead. I actually took my vest off and sat on it in the event someone were to shoot through the aircraft and at least I would protect my butt.
By the time we get them on the aircraft, they were stabilized enough to be able to fly, and so we were usually either the second or third echelon of care that was taking them on to additional, echelons of care. Landstuhl would be considered either the third or fourth echelon of care, you have the different levels of care. By the time we got in, they were stable enough to fly. It was primarily US military members or allied folks who were injured that needed to be air evac-ed out.
We just really cared about looking out for each other, doing our part to ensure that everything went off without a hitch, and we just really bonded to accomplish the mission. We had a common cause, a common goal, a common task to get after. We weren't mired in the mediocrity of ‘What do we all look like?’ and what our political position was and all of those things. I just never recall any of that being an issue in the thick of carrying out the mission. We just wanted to know that, can you do your job? You can do your job? Good. I could do mine. We're all doing our part. Let's get after it, let's make it successful. I didn't care, the pilots who were flying the aircraft, what they looked like. Can they take off and land and get us there safely? I didn't care that on our crews we had women and men and folks who were just professionals at our jobs. ‘Can we get the job done?’ That's what the focus was. And so all of that goes out the windows when you're in the thick of serving together.
One of the things that even in your training, you train together, you work together, like you say, everybody bleeds red and you provide just the best care to any patient in front of you. You provide the absolute best care that you can. And the common purpose of accomplishing the mission, kept us focused. And so that we didn't have any distractions. I find that when people are not working toward a common goal or common mission or common purpose, they become distracted by the noise that's happening on the side. When you have time to sit around and talk politics and do those things is where the differences of opinion come up. But when you're out carrying out the mission and in the thick of getting the job done, those things, you're just staying focused on being successful at your job. And particularly for us saving lives and sustaining lives to get them to the next level of care.
Yeah. There was a flight when I was doing a training mission on the C-130 and the engines began to fail. And I can remember we were on the aircraft and it just started to shake. It was kind of from side to side, it was like if you have a flat tire, it's like a limp type of a motion. The aircraft began to kind of shake. One of the engines went out and the load master started running back and forth from one side to the other. And so we're like, what's going on? So they have to shut down the engine, try to restart it. It wouldn't restart. Because the fear was that once one engine shut down, it was going to be a chain reaction that all the engines would start shutting down.
And so they ended up shutting down that aircraft, the plane could still fly because it was a four prop plane, but just in that moment you go, “Hmm, this could be it. If these engines go down this could be the end of all of this for us on this aircraft.” And it was a sobering moment for me to really get after life and get after the goals and the things that I wanted to accomplish.
But that stands out to me of all the missions I've been on, was that the engines started to fail on that one aircraft that time. But we landed safely. You land and the fire trucks are behind you, but everything was good.
I finished college. I was the first in history in my family to finish college and there was a commissioning opportunity in the air force. And at this time I was stationed at Maxwell Air Force Base in Alabama as a reservist. And there was this real push to create more diversity within the higher ranks. And so the air force reserve has this program called Deserving Airman Program. It's for enlisted members who have a college education. They can compete, put together a package that gets reviewed and you can do an interview and you can... The board was selected. You go before a board, they review your package and you sit down for a face to face interview and then they select you. And I distinctly recall 25 people had applied for this job, for this one position, and of those 25 I was selected. And it was just furthering my goals and my career in the air force. I looked at it, I said, "I would make it to Chief Master Sergeant, which is E9, or I could do the officer route and get to at least Major Lieutenant Colonel." And I looked at the retirement pay I go, "Hmm, I think I'll go that route."
I'm an extremely optimistic person and I thought people actually would be happy for me. Like, yo, that's great. You're doing it. No, it was a mad shade. It was like, what are you doing? You're going to the dark side, things like that. And I think it was fun ribbing and jokes. But a lot of times when I do those things, I do it... Like when I joined, I do it with as few people knowing about it as possible, so that I'm not overly influenced by other people's input or impression or like, “Oh man, you shouldn't do that.” Do you know what I mean? So once I was selected, people found out. They made the announcement that I was selected and then all the ribbing and things came.
Yeah, because the enlisted corps really is the heartbeat of the branches and the worker bees who are really out there getting it done, even today. The list of folks I served with, they are always out there getting it done. And I just try to provide top cover. I have a really great relationship because I'm prior enlisted and there's a different way of interacting with them because I understand what life is like as an enlisted member. But yeah, I think because the enlisted corps really is what keeps it going and out there getting it done, making it happen, the day to day work, and we're just to provide guidance and direction and top cover. And so part of that ribbing is, “Oh, you're going to go and sit in the chair and put your feet up. You're not going to be out here working in the trenches with us.” So that's pretty much where that is.
Having been enlisted and being mentored by some great mentors, I consider myself a master mentor. Right? And what I do is I encourage people to greatness. And part of my philosophy is to put my hand on their back and push them along, but let them know that if they were to fall backwards, I'm there to catch them. And so we have to encourage, we have to motivate, we have to inspire, we have to uplift, and then we have to allow room for creativity. And the key for me is, it's okay to make a mistake, you can bounce back from it. You don't have to crumble under a mistake so long as you have life in your body, air to breathe, you can get after and accomplish the things that you want to accomplish.
So you have to set a vision, some goals of where you want to be, and then move along. So one of the things I did, I served as the... We used to have, it's called Human Resource Development Council in the air force reserve, and within there is the mentoring program. And I would say because I prior enlisted, I have mentored easily 20 plus prior enlisted to become officers, anywhere from pilots to logistics officers to nurses. And so that's a huge piece in my philosophy. My leadership philosophy is to inspire those and encourage them to get after it and motivate them and mentor them through it. I know it sounds choppy, but that's my leadership philosophy and style.
We train to be ready, we train in the event that our nation calls us that we are prepared. I think that our folks are prepared and ready to go anytime our nation needs us. And that's a sacrifice that we make. We're consummate professionals and it's a really fascinating thing in how they have been able to bridge the gap in between your day to day operation, day to day working, that could then morph into a combat situation if needed. And so, for example, if you are a medic, you work in the clinic during the, what I call downtime, you're servicing patients, you're doing your IVs and you're doing all that. And then if in a combat situation that's able to translate into where you are on the ground. So we practice it, we do it day to day, and so that if need be, in an operational environment, we're prepared to do it. And, I think, hopefully diplomatic events will prevail, but if not, we're ready to go.
Yeah so in my downtime, I write. I am a part of the Veterans Writing Project at the Writer's Guild Foundation. And I pretty much write stories about ordinary people who are put in extraordinary situations who have to make a decision to either fold or stand up and become the heroes of their story, the heroes of their circumstance. And so I write hero characters who rise to the occasion to overcome the obstacles that they're faced with. You know i n the air force, there are currently only 20 African American male fighter pilots in the whole of the air force. And they're only four who fly the F-22. And so I'm working on a piece about an F-22 pilot, who is really excited. He wants to become the demo pilot for the F-22, which is a high honor. And so he has to meet some criteria in order to do that and meet a lot of challenges and a lot of obstacles. But, he officially gets there.
And so, yeah, I write that. And I'm working on another piece as well about a combat medic, actually. It's a TV series. I'm writing about a combat medic who returns home to Chicago, my neighborhood, and thrusts himself into providing medical care for people in his neighborhood. He gets fed up with the apathetic response of emergency services and he puts on his combat medic bag, he gets out there and starts patching up folks in his community. So it becomes like a Robin hood. It's like a Robin Hood story. He's an adrenaline addicted combat medic. It's just some fascinating things. I just love to create, I love to write, I love to tell stories and I get out there and start making it happen.
What made me come up with that story is we know about all the violence that happened in Chicago and all the shootings and all the killings in those communities and the community that I grew up in, I mean, I grew up in a really rough neighborhood where more people were killed then graduated college, more people went to jail than graduated high school. And so to have a story where someone from within that community comes home and becomes a hero and an example of what could happen, that is what inspired me.
People in those conditions have to become the hero of their stories. They have to stop waiting for someone else to come and fix the issues for them. They have to get involved and they have to make it happen. Because guess what? Nobody's coming. Nobody's come to change their situation and change your lifestyle, or change your circumstances. You have to change your circumstances. And so that's pretty much what that story's about, motivating folks to get up, get out, do something. And even if it's not, because it becomes a medical vigilante. So the cops are after him, but at least he's trying to make a change in some way.
One of the things I often say is we're all in this together. We are not each other's enemies. And I'll share this with you quickly. I had flown into Washington DC and I was picked up by one of those shared ride drivers. And he was from Tunisia and he said, "I don't understand you Americans. Why do you have all these categories where you have to check all these different boxes?" And he said, "I didn't know what to check." And he said, "Somebody told me I needed to check the Hispanic box." And I said, "Well, no, according to America, you're from Tunisia, you're Northern African, you're considered white from Northern Africa above." I bring this up to say that there are a couple of things that really, three major things, that really divide us in this country.
Race is the number one. Race is the biggest divider in this country that keeps us all at each other's throat. Politics is another and socioeconomic status is another. And how that fits into patriotism is, folks who are not of a certain hue are treated as if they're not patriots or of a certain political position. So patriotism isn't owned by one particular race or one particular political party of people on certain socioeconomic status. It's owned by the collective of us in this country. We all play a role in this country. We have to realize we're not each other's enemies. We have to realize that we're all in this together. We have to realize that there are some folks out there who really want to disrupt and destroy who we are as Americans, and they like to sow seeds of discord to keep us at each other's throats.
And so the whole notion of who's a patriot, who's not a patriot? If you sign up and you serve your country, and if you're just a good person looking out for yourself and the people around you? They're all elements of patriotism. And so no one has the magic wand to what is patriotism. I think we all do our part to contribute to this country.
That was LTC Darrell Bogan.
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