HE MAKES 'HOUSE CALLS' - To save the lives of others, Airman must risk his own

  • Published
  • By Tim Barela
  • Torch Magazine
In a world that can sometimes seem callous, it's nice to find a medical professional who still provides care the old school way. ... He makes "house calls."

Meet Master Sgt. Davide Keaton.

He's an Air Force pararescueman, which is basically an emergency medical technician who should have a big "S" tattooed on his chest. That's because to do his job sometimes seems to require super human abilities, such as being bulletproof.

The "neighborhood" he serves is global -- anywhere, anytime and under any conditions. That could mean jumping out of perfectly good airplanes, diving into raging seas, navigating the world's deadliest terrain in either freezing or scorching temperatures, and fighting off a fierce enemy who is shooting at him while he tries to provide medical care.

Case in point.

In October 2007, Keaton was on a night patrol with an elite special forces unit in Afghanistan looking for "bad guys." They found some. Taliban rebels ambushed his team with small arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades.

As the pararescueman's unit repelled the surprise attack and things began going bad for the enemy aggressors, the desperate rebels turned to a deplorable tactic. They used Afghani women and children as human shields.

Keaton sprang into action.

First he ran 150 meters to a 7-year-old boy who had been shot in the groin, with the bullet exiting his lower back. The Airman placed his body between the child and enemy gunfire while he frantically worked to stop the bleeding. Then he picked the boy up and carried him another 30 meters to safety.

Again exposing himself to Taliban marksmen, he ran to the aid of a 10-year-old boy and 11-year-old girl, both of whom had been shot in the arm. He hauled them to safety and treated their injuries. He also tended to the girl's mother, who'd been grazed by bullets.

And still he wasn't finished.

Next, he found a 13-year-old girl who had been shot in the abdomen and administered medical aid.

When it was all said and done, he had managed to save the lives of one woman and four children, while somehow evading gunshot wounds of his own.

Why did Keaton expose himself to enemy gunfire? It's not that he has a death wish. As a matter of fact, he very much wants to live. That's why he works out nearly every day, which helps him traverse terrain so dangerous it could snap a mountain goat's surefooted limbs. He carries extra water because he knows dehydration can be a killer every bit as deadly as Taliban forces. He ensures his personal protective gear, such as body armor and helmet is used and maintained. And he relies on his rigorous tactical, navigational and medical training to get him out of tough scrapes.

But Keaton, who is assigned to the 24th Special Tactics Squadron at Pope Air Force Base, N.C., also lives by the rescue code: "That Others May Live."

In short, that means if he has to put his life on the line to save others, he's going to do it without giving it a second thought.

It's not something he brags about. As a matter of fact, one of his least favorite chores might be to talk about himself -- not even in Italian, which the Torino, Italy, native speaks fluently. Maybe that's because so many of his stories would require a top security clearance to hear.

But even the ones he can talk about, like his heroic actions in Afghanistan, he prefers to downplay by pointing out that other guys are working just as hard as him and "it's a team effort." Even while taking on a "Superman" role, he deflects attention by marveling at the strength and courage of the wounded Afghani women and children.

"They didn't scream or get hysterical," he said, admiringly. "They remained so calm it was surreal. I guess they are used to it after a lifetime of living around war. They are a tough people."

Keaton could have been describing himself. He is unique even among his peers. At 40 years old and nearly 22 years in service, he's still in a young man's "game." That means he has to keep his 5-foot-11-inch frame in top condition at a muscular 200 pounds. For the former wrestler, boxer and cross-country runner, that's a task he enjoys more than most. But it still takes a mental and physical toughness to achieve.

Nevertheless, he knows his days as a combat pararescueman are numbered. The past two years he's been deployed nearly 640 days. Even with his understanding wife, Marcia, whom he married in May, that's a long time to be separated from family. And age and career tenure will eventually catch up to him.

He admits, though, it will be hard to walk away from the profession for which he's sacrificed so much.

"There's God, my wife and then this job," he said, listing the things that are most important to him in life. "I love what I do."

For now, the world is a little better off because Keaton and others like him continue to make global "house calls." We should all be thankful.

EDITOR'S NOTE: In September, Keaton received the 2008 Air Force Sergeant's Association Pitsenbarger Award for his heroic actions during the shootout with Taliban fighters. Marcia, who he'd wed only three months earlier, had to pick up the award for her husband at a ceremony in San Antonio. Not surprisingly, Keaton was already on another deployment to Afghanistan. ... He volunteered.