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January 4, 2012

W. Va. flight medic honored for bravery in Afghanistan

By Travis Crum
The Charleston Gazette

CHARLESTON, W. Va. — Nicole Hopkins, a flight medic from West Virginia, said she would never forget the day she left Afghanistan with severe injuries received during a dangerous mission in one of the war's deadliest months.

She vividly remembers looking out her flight's window during her return trip at another plane carrying coffins draped in American flags.

"What I thought most about during that flight home was the guy we picked up that day, Sgt. Matthew Weikert," Hopkins said. "He was flying back to the states the same time as me, only he wasn't flying home injured."

Hopkins, a 35-year-old staff sergeant with the West Virginia Air National Guard, was presented the Bronze Star with Valor last month for her bravery during missions to rescue injured soldiers in July 2010.

'A deadly month'
Hopkins and her crew of about 30 soldiers, with Company C of the 2-104th General Support Aviation Battalion, were taking missions near Orgun-E Kalan, an outpost in Paktika, Afghanistan.

Her crew conducted more than 500 missions and gave medical evacuation to more than 800 soldiers during their deployment.

On July 17, Hopkins' crew was called out to provide medical assistance for soldiers injured in a land mine explosion.

"Based on where we were, it only took a few minutes to get there and land the Blackhawk," she said. "While we were there, we heard a secondary explosion up on a ridge overlooking where we were."

The crew loaded the first injured soldier and took off, dropping him off at a nearby hospital base. Their helicopter circled around and came back to assist two soldiers injured from the second explosion. The first of those soldiers was loaded onto the aircraft and Hopkins tended to his injuries before he was evacuated in a separate aircraft.

Five members of the crew were then sent to rescue the second injured soldier, who was lying along a steep ridge. They were having trouble because the ridgeline was too high.

The pilot then flew the Blackhawk to the ridge and conducted a two-wheeled landing. Hopkins, the only medic on board, decided that the only way to rescue the soldier was for her to get off the aircraft.

Hopkins jumped to the ridge overlooking a steep minefield to help the injured man.

She treated him at the scene and assisted in loading him into the Blackhawk. She and another soldier performed CPR on him until arriving at a hospital. The man later succumbed to his severe injuries.

That soldier was Army Staff Sgt. Weikert, 29, of Jacksonville, Ill.

Her bravery
Two days after the missions along the ridge, Hopkins and her crew were called to do a patient transport. While in route, it was learned that four soldiers had been injured in a vehicle roll-over nearby.

After responding to that location, her crew could not find a safe place to land. It was too dark and the weather was starting to get bad, she said.

Hopkins decided she needed to hoist down on a ladder about 100 feet to reach the injured soldiers.

As Hopkins was being lowered, the aircraft lost power and had to "fly out of it," she said.

"It had to take off. It flew with me still hanging there and I slammed into a rise in the terrain," she said.

The pain was intense she said, but she was more worried about the safety of the soldiers on the ground. At this point, she said, she was swinging uncontrollably beneath the aircraft.

She was safely evacuated after a secondary crew assisted the injured soldiers on the ground.

Hopkins sustained a severe compound fracture to her femur but remained conscious, she said.

She was taken to a nearby hospital and treated before being transported to a military hospital in Germany. Doctors installed a fixation to hold her femur in place and later implanted a rod to hold it together.

Hopkins returned home less than a week later and began her recovery through a Warrior Transition Unit, units assisting soldiers through physical training. She returned to her family's home in Ohio where she reported to an armory.

She is now back at work full-time for the Air National Guard, making sure those who enlist in West Virginia have their medical and dental checks up to date.

"I wouldn't say I'm a 100 percent now," she said. "I had a limp for a long time. I can walk fine and run on the treadmill for a period of time. Some days I can run one mile and a half and other days, one mile before the pain starts to bother me," she said.

She is working toward her bachelors degree in nursing from West Virginia University.

The medal
Hopkins said she was attending a ceremony in Wheeling last month for National Guard members returning from Kosovo when she got a call from Maj. Kevin Hazuka.

Hazuka asked Hopkins to meet him in Charleston to discuss work-related things.

She said she had no idea that she was receiving the Bronze Star when she got to the office of James A. Hoyer, Adjutant General of West Virginia.

"I was completely surprised," she said.

Hazuka nominated Hopkins for the medal because of her bravery in evacuating the injured soldiers in July. She also was fearless as she performed one of the most dangerous missions, a hoist mission, to evacuate at Sgt. Weikert.

"She didn't even think twice about jumping out over that minefield," Hazuka said.

Those types of missions are also dangerous because medical aircraft are sitting targets with big red crosses on them, he said.

Hopkins said with the medal, she wants to remind people about soldiers - such as Sgt. Weikert - who died defending our country.

"I downplay anything wrong with me. [My injury] was nothing," she said. "I was not dead and I was going to get to come home. I think those who died, they don't get the recognition."

Hopkins enlisted in the Navy in 1994. She was on active duty for three years before entering the Army Reserves.

She was deployed to Iraq from 2005 to early 2006. When she returned home, she enlisted in the state's Air National Guard Reserves.

Staff Sgt. Nicole Hopkins, a flight medic with the W. Va. Air National Guard, was presented a Bronze Star with Valor last month for her bravery during rescue missions in Afghanistan. On July 17, 2010, Hopkins risked her life when she was lowered from an aircraft over a minefield to treat and evacuate injured soldiers.

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