JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas --
“Protect and return home,” was the motto for retired U.S. Air Force Col. Michael Patronis while serving as the Patient Administration Division lead at the Air Force Theater Hospital, once located on Joint Base Balad, Iraq.
The large canopy tent hospital, had a massive American flag hanging from the ceiling that bridged the helipad to the emergency department, known as Hero’s Highway, where many of the injured service members were treated from Operation Enduring Freedom and Operation Iraqi Freedom.
The first thing injured service members would see upon arrival to the theater hospital was the American flag flying above them, a symbol they made it to safety. Seeing the flag, they knew their chance of surviving was high, and if need be, they could be back in the United States in just a few days.
When Patronis arrived in Balad in September 2007, his team was charged with retrieving patients from Black Hawk helicopters and transporting them to the emergency department through Hero’s Highway.
“[There is] no better way to show service members they’ve made it to safety,” said Patronis. “Face up, back down, and being able to look up and see the American flag.”
When the original flag became too worn from the elements, Patronis was tasked to source a replacement.
Patronis, with the help of his comrades, made contact with the Marion Military Institute in Alabama to get a new flag.
At the same time, a USO tour with country western singer, Darryl Worley, was coming to Iraq and the team coordinated for the flag to be shipped to Balad as part of the USO’s cargo.
Due to the enormous size of the flags, volunteers were recruited to make the swap, placing the old flag into a shadow box and raising the new one in a small ceremony.
But the lighthearted mood under Hero’s Highway wouldn’t last. After all, the flag was hung to give hope to service members in a warzone.
Through his deployment, Patronis developed a close and trusting relationship with his Airmen as they experienced the trials of a combat hospital.
“Folks would come in right off the battlefield,” said Patronis. “Having fresh trauma come through underneath Hero’s Highway, we always felt a certain sense of pride being able to get down in front of the [emergency department] staff so they could start stabilizing and preparing life-saving measures.”
Balad was in close proximity of the Diyala province, a hotbed of fighting in Iraq during 2007. As a result, Patronis and his team transported thousands of casualties, many in critical condition, imparting a special significance to their bond and a special meaning to the flag.
“We were bringing in someone who had been hit pretty hard, and we very quickly and efficiently got them into the ED,” said Patronis. “[One of my Airmen] had forgotten to put rubber gloves on. We always had our PPE on to keep us from getting bloody but she got blood on her hands as we were helping the ED staff. I remember her staring at her hands, and she just stood there. You could tell she was going into a minor state of shock. I went over to her and said ‘Katy, are you ok?’ she just said ‘I didn’t have my gloves on.’ I took my gloves off and grabbed her hands and we walked over to wash our hands together. That’s part of what the flag means for me.”
The second flag flew from Jan. 22 to Dec. 28, 2007. The Air Force Medical Services History Office brought it back to the 59th Medical Wing where it has since made its home in the halls of Wilford Hall Ambulatory Surgical Center. When the facilities moved to a new building, it followed.
The flag is now on display in the atrium of WHASC. With this, the 59th MDW highlights the importance of the mission and honors the lives of the Airmen, Soldiers, Marines, and Sailors who came through Hero’s Highway and the medics who carried them in.
When other service members see the flag display here, Patronis hopes they know they are part of the life-saving chain protecting service member’s lives.