Providing critical care in the back of a helicopter going 160 mph takes teamwork, expert skill and the ability to work under pressure.
With more than 30% of their teams consisting of veterans, many draw on experiences gained during military careers to serve patients and save lives.
‘A unique experience’
“It’s satisfying to work alongside such a great group of clinicians, pilots, maintainers and dispatchers,” said Aaron Ziegler, MD, a flight physician and the medical director for Aero Med. “We’re a close group, all rowing in the same direction to provide high-level care to patients that need it most in the moment.”
Dr. Ziegler is responsible for the quality of medical care that both the Grand Rapids-based Aero Med and Traverse City-based North Flight Aero Med deliver.
On each flight, a pilot teams with two flight nurses—or with Dr. Ziegler and a nurse.
Dr. Ziegler served in active duty in the Air Force from 2005-08 as a flight surgeon for an air base in Qatar. His home base was in Grand Forks, North Dakota, so he would fly between locations.
“The heat of the desert was a unique experience,” he said, laughing. “In a one-day span I went from minus teen temps in North Dakota to over 100 degrees in Qatar. That’s a pretty big temperature swing.”
Dr. Ziegler went on a few medivac operations to Kuwait and worked in a makeshift clinic to serve pilots and aircrew members needing care.
“I was supporting the pilots and air crew members in that base, which was the main base of air operations for both Iraq and Afghanistan,” Dr. Ziegler said.
As an Air Force captain, Dr. Ziegler helped sharpen leadership skills in the service.
“I was around very effective leaders,” he said. “And so now, as a physician leader, that experience has served me very well.”
On Veterans Day, Dr. Ziegler focuses his attention on the sacrifices men and women have made while in service to this country.
“I was involved in the operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, but thankfully I wasn’t exposed to the level of trauma that a lot of people experienced,” he said. “People need to keep in mind the silent wounds some of our soldiers still have.”
Aero Med and North Flight Aero Med veterans
- Brian Aucompaugh – Mechanic – Army
- Dale Bluemel – Pilot – Coast Guard
- Keil Clough – Pilot – Army
- Jeff Cobb – Pilot – Army
- Chris Enoksen – Pilot – Coast Guard
- Kyle Kandel – Mechanic – Marines
- Gabriel Lett – Flight Communications – Marines
- Jerry Marchal – Mechanic – Navy
- Toby Miller – Pilot – Army
- Pat Morell – Pilot – Army
- Nate Noyes – Pilot – Coast Guard
- Shauna Piotrowski – Flight Nurse – Air Force
- Randy Shnowski – Pilot – Army
- Shad Soldano – Pilot – Coast Guard
- Jeff Wroblewski – Pilot – Army
- David Wyma – Mechanic – Navy
- Dr. Aaron Ziegler – Med Director – Air Force
An honor to fly
Aero Med pilots Pat Morell and Jeff Wroblewski, who both served in the Army National Guard, agree.
“I hope people think about those who are working to preserve what we have here in this country and the people who have given the ultimate sacrifice for what we have,” Morell said. “I think it gets lost in this day and age. We have a lot of freedoms that people take for granted—freedoms that other countries don’t have.”
“It’s a great day to think back and to be grateful for all those who have served and given their lives—and to their families as well for all their support,” Wroblewski said. “It’s nice to honor those who are still serving as well.”
Morell and Wroblewski served together in a peacekeeping mission in Kosovo in 2005 and 2006.
“We would fly the border of Serbia,” Morell said. “We would patrol that area and we were a quick reaction force. There was always a couple of Apache and Blackhawk helicopters that were always ready to go if something came up.”
Morell enlisted at 20 years old, Wroblewski at 18.
“When I went in, it wasn’t guaranteed that I would get a pilot position, but it was a possibility. And that even made me more interested,” Morell said. “I always had an interest in aviation.”
One of his highlights? Flying with Vietnam veterans.
“Because I was in the National Guard, at my age, there were a lot of Vietnam vets still flying in the national guard. We were flying Huey aircrafts and I learned a lot from those guys,” he said. “It was an honor to fly with Vietnam veterans and gain experience from them.”
There for people
Morell has been flying with Aero Med since 2017. Wroblewski started as a pilot with Aero Med in 2007 and is now a pilot and director of flight operations. They are two of 16 pilots at Aero Med and North Flight Aero Med.
In addition to transporting patients from hospital to hospital, the pilots work with dispatchers, fire departments and EMS departments to get to patients at a scene by setting up a proper landing zone.
“We go right to where the accident may have happened,” Morell said. “That could be on the road, it could be out in the middle of nowhere. Sometimes we’ve had people injured on snowmobile trails or at their home.”
Safety is always their top priority.
“It shouldn’t be super exciting,” Morell said. “It shouldn’t be harrowing going into these places. If we can’t take care of ourselves as a crew, if we put ourselves in danger, then we’re not going to be able to help anybody else.”
Both pilots said flying in the Army was great experience.
“We got a variety of training,” Morell said. “We did a lot with night-vision goggles, we did sling loads, we did terrain flights—low level on the treetops. That all added up to help us.”
“I would give all the credit to my military experience, 100%,” Wroblewski said. “They taught me all the basic fundamentals, from obtaining my first pilot’s license to the advanced license we have now. It’s all credited to my time in the Army National Guard.”
‘I can do that’
“At Aero Med, anybody, whether it’s a flight nurse or a pilot can say, ‘No, I don’t want to do this flight,’” Morell said.
“All to say go, one to say no,” echoed Shauna Piotrowski, RN, a North Flight Aero Med flight nurse. “If one of us is uncomfortable with doing something, then you speak up. It’s something I learned in the military—being comfortable speaking up.”
Piotrowski was a flight nurse in the Air Force, serving from 2012 to 2015. A reservist, she was based at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base in Dayton, Ohio.
Her husband served as a Marine. An Air Force brochure featuring flight nurses caught Shauna’s eye.
“I thought, ‘Oh, I can do that,’” she said.
An experienced nurse and paramedic, Piotrowski joined the Air Force at age 30.
“It taught me that you can do whatever you want,” she said. “You can ‘woulda, coulda, shoulda’ forever and think you lost an opportunity, but if you want to do something, go do it.”
Although she didn’t get an opportunity to deploy, she found the training rewarding.
“I loved flying,” she said. “I loved getting on board, doing a briefing with everybody about the training mission and then we’d get on the aircraft already running with all our gear and we would take an aircraft designed to haul pallets of supplies or Blackhawks and in an hour, we had to completely convert it to carry patients.”
“We converted these giant cargo planes into flying hospitals,” she said. “We didn’t move one patient, we moved lots of patients. Some of these cargo planes at maximum capacity with patients on board can carry 60 to 90 patients.”
Her military experience instilled in her an attention to detail that leads to safety when providing lifesaving care.
“There are times when there are patients out there and the difference between life and death is the skill level and the speed that we provide,” she said.
“There are those few times that you look back and you get done with what you’re doing and you say, ‘That person is alive, because we exist’—and that is what keeps us all coming to work.”
Piotrowski said being a veteran helps her connect with some patients.
“If they find out I served, even though I never deployed, they tend to open up with me,” she said. “There’s an instant comfort level that I’m able to give them as a nurse to a patient.”
She hopes people think of veterans beyond Veterans Day.
“Don’t just remember us today,” she said. “Our way of life is because of the people who have served and whose lives have been changed irreversibly by the work that they do in the military.”
Many times, when Piotrowski flies, she’s reminded of her Air Force experience and the Air Force theme song, “Off We Go into the Wild Blue Yonder.”
“Every time I hear, ‘Off we go’ or, ‘Here we go,’ my brain fills in the rest of that,” she said. “We have a pilot that says, ‘Alright, here we go,’ and then in my mind it’s, ‘into the wild blue yonder.'”
‘You can’t make mistakes’
To make sure the flight goes safely, each aircraft must be mechanically sound.
David Wyma is the director of aviation maintenance at Aero Med and a mechanic.
“In aviation, you can’t make mistakes,” Wyma said. “It’s not like if you’re having trouble with a car and you can pull over to the side of the road. A little mistake can create a lot of issues.”
Wyma enlisted in the Navy right out of high school. He said it fulfilled his goals of seeing the world and allowed him to take classes toward a degree in aviation.
The military instilled in him the quality of being meticulous, he said.
Wyma and his team of mechanics ensure the Aero Med fleet—three S-76 helicopters and one King Air airplane—are ready to go.
“Knowing we have a safe aircraft ready to launch and fulfill our mission to serve patients in our community is fulfilling,” he said.
Wyma, who started with Aero Med as a mechanic in 1990, is responsible for compliance with federal regulations, inspections and all components to keep Aero Med flying safely.
He found his time in the Navy rewarding, although he never spent time on a boat.
“That’s my claim to fame,” he said. “Five years in the Navy and never on a ship.”
Wyma served for five years in the early ’80s—three in Norfolk, Virginia, and two in active duty at Naval Air Station Keflavik in Iceland, performing intermediate level maintenance on aircrafts.
He and his team would repair aircraft parts for reinstallation.
“I remember making good friends, diverse friends,” he said. “The military is a great opportunity for young people to serve the country and protect our way of life for future generations.”
Honor, courage and commitment
Aero Med dispatcher Gabe Lett was one such young man who embraced the call to serve at an early age.
He enlisted in the Marines at age 17 in the delayed entry program.
“As a kid, I always knew I wanted to join the military someday,” Lett said. “And I always knew that I’d want a career or job that helps people.”
After high school, Gabe went off to boot camp at Marine Corps Recruit Depot in San Diego.
“It was my first time out of state, really the first time traveling, so that was definitely an eye-opening experience, but I adapted pretty quickly,” he said.
After infantry training at Camp Pendleton near San Diego, Lett went to occupational training in North Carolina, where he trained as a supply operations specialist.
He served in the 6th Engineer Support Battalion as part of the Marine Corp Reserves stationed in Battle Creek until December 2020.
His favorite military memory: training with an infantry unit at the Bridgeport Marine Corp Mountain Warfare Training Center in California.
“It was great experience,” he said. “We did convoy operations across the mountain, we did cross training as a radio operator. It was a very diverse experience. We trained alongside an infantry unit to simulate a whole deployment of a forward operation base.”
As a flight communications specialist, Lett said he uses the skills he sharpened in the Marines.
“It shaped me greatly,” he said. “Starting with my work ethic and values that they teach from day one: have the values of honor, courage and commitment and all the leadership standards they teach. It correlates with my role at Aero Med. I can’t help others if I’m not being my best or improving myself.”
Lett has been with Aero Med two years.
“We coordinate and communicate with everybody to make sure our mission is successful,” he said. “We flight follow the aircraft, handle radio communications, make phone calls to the hospitals or, if it’s a scene crash, we coordinate with fire departments, EMS and dispatch centers. And we do a lot of coordination between our medical crew and our pilots.
“We perform the behind-the-scenes roles where we handle everything, so things go smoothly. It’s a very fun, multi-tasking job.”
Lett values his time in the service.
“I want to make sure people realize the sacrifices veterans have made in the past and what they continue to do,” he said. “It’s good to always realize what Veterans Day is for. We should appreciate those who served and those who weren’t able to come home to their families.”