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Trudeau, Toggle and TBI - a Backstory to the 'Doonesbury' Aeromedical Flight
Military.com  |  By Bryant Jordan  |  February 15, 2008

For about seven days in January, "Doonesbury" creator Garry Trudeau set his strip aboard a C-17 Globemaster, where doctors, nurses and technicians cared for wounded and injured troops returning from the war in Iraq, including one, Toggle, who suffered a traumatic brain injury. The Airmen who staff these missions - from the medical personnel to the aircrews - call it one of the greatest priviledges of their military service. In an email interview with Military.com, Trudeau offered some of the background to the story line.

Did you actually accompany an aeromedical evacuation  flight?

No, although not for lack of trying. I contacted the [Defense Department], but couldn't pull it together within the schedule I was on.  Because of privacy concerns, traveling with the critically wounded required me to secure permission from all the various surgeon-general offices, which wasn't going to happen in the middle of Christmas holidays on one week's notice. So, instead, I just flew to Germany and went out to Ramstein to meet a C-17 coming in from Iraq. I toured the aircraft and stayed up half the night talking with AF flight surgeons. Then I toured Landstuhl, flew home and met another plane at Andrews [Air Force Base, Md.] to observe the handoff to Walter Reed. Finally I talked to TBI [traumatic brain injury] specialists at the hospital. Everyone couldn't have been more helpful.

What inspired you to incorporate the aeromedical mission into a Doonesbury story line?

"The Air-Evac story arc was just a piece of a much longer narrative about a Soldier with a TBI. I met a number of TBI cases out at the Palo Alto VA hospital a couple years ago, and have wanted ever since to write about that signature wound of the war. Toggle was created specifically to help tell that story.

What did you think of the Air Force's aeromedical evacuation operation?

It's as impressive as you might imagine. There is an extraordinary number of moving parts, but by now transporting CCATs has been routinized. The extraordinary has been made ordinary.  It should inspire a lot of confidence in the ranks -- if you're injured, no matter how severely, your evacuation will be handled with competence and professionalism.

Were you surprised at the number of patients coming home with illnesses or non-combat injuries?

Yes. Especially sports injuries. There are a lot of stressed-out, athletic young people downrange, and they're going to get the same kind of banal injuries blowing off steam that anyone might get at home. But they do seem a little sheepish about it.

What, if anything, surprised you the most about the aeromedical evacuation flights?

Not too much surprised me, except for maybe the compactness of the CCAT monitoring equipment. I'd already done a lot of reading in preparation.

What did you think of the C-17 Globemaster?

Awesome. Loved the modular capabilities of the cargo hold -- safe, secure, incredibly adaptable. Just good, smart design. 

Is Toggle based on any particular Soldier or Marine?

No, but I got an assist from a number of the milbloggers at The Sandbox. They filled me in on what kind of music they'd listen to to pump themselves up for a mission. They also provided me with technical details about patching iPods into the commo systems of their trucks. Probably not the smartest thing to do on patrol, but apparently quite common.

Sound Off...What do you think? Join the discussion.

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