Corpsman honored as ‘Angel of Battlefield’

Wayne Papalski of Navy’s SAR team proves tireless in efforts to help others 


After a long day of training near Deception Pass followed by a rescue attempt near a mountain top in the Central Cascades, Wayne Papalski remembers he had barely climbed into bed to get some sleep when his phone rang.

“I was like, ‘Oh my God, what’s going on now?’” he said.

Papalski knew sleep would have to wait.

The Search and Rescue team from Whidbey Island Naval Air Station that he was a part of was being recalled to Mount Stuart.

Papalski, an experienced corpsman with 12 years in the Navy, was the only member of the unit making the return trip.

Before he would be able to lay his head on a pillow again, Papalski was involved in two rescues in Chelan County at nearly 9,000 feet that required medical treatment of a hiker who tumbled down the mountainside and a local rescue team that had been dropped off to help her.

The result of Papalski’s efforts in June of 2014 led to a national honor. He is one of five service members who are being recognized as “Angels of the Battlefield‚“ this month in Washington, D.C.

The award, sponsored by the Armed Services YMCA, goes annually to one medic, corpsman or pararescuer from each of the five branches of military service who provide life-saving medical treatment on the battlefield, often under fire, while disregarding their own safety.

Papalski, 29, from Secaucus, N.J., said he was honored to be recognized in such a way, understanding that the award also is reflective of his cumulative career as a Navy corpsman. Yet he was still surprised.

“My first immediate reaction was, ‘Wow, they chose me for Angel of the Battlefield when I haven’t been in combat since 2012,’” he said with a smile.

Papalski deflected the credit to the tight-knit SAR team he’s known since he came to Oak Harbor two years ago.

The elite unit is normally called upon roughly 30 times a year for missions to rescue those in extreme peril.

June 4 last year was one of those occasions.

Whidbey’s SAR unit was dispatched to come to the aid of a seriously-injured climber, Viviane deBros of Bellevue, who had lost her footing while descending the summit of Mount Stuart and slid and tumbled roughly 800 feet.

High winds forced the SAR unit to abort the helicopter rescue that night, however, it was able to insert a Chelan County Search and Rescue deputy and a medic with Cascade Medical Center about 2,500 feet below deBros at about 1:30 a.m.

At the same time, a ground team representing two local search and rescue units had begun walking in from a high-elevation trailhead.

Rescuers reached deBros and her climbing partner later that morning and found her to be stable with multiple injuries that required an airlift.

Whidbey’s SAR unit returned to find safer wind conditions and was able to hoist deBros into the helicopter and into Papalski’s care after she spent about 20 hours on the mountainside.

Part of that time was spent huddled with her climbing partner to try to keep warm.

“With the actual injuries that she had, I was surprised that she was conscious,” Papalski said, noting a massive skull fracture, compound fracture of her arm, severe hypothermia and dehydration. “I was surprised that she could talk to me.”

Papalski treated deBros while the helicopter flew her to Harborview Medical Center in Seattle. The five-member SAR unit then reversed course and flew back to the mountain to help the exhausted rescuers.

“We wound up giving IVs to a couple of the sheriffs on the scene because they were dehydrated,” Papalski said. “They had been climbing the mountain all night trying to get to her.”

Five days later, deBros was on ABC News’ Good Morning America talking about the ordeal. She wound up fully recovering.

Papalski called the outcome miraculous considering what might be expected from such a long fall from a mountain top and a long wait for help in the freezing cold.

“I’ve been in Iraq and Afghanistan and all throughout the Middle East,” Papalski said. “I’ve seen some crazy stuff.”

He calls the “Angels in the Battlefield” award a group accomplishment. He is one of 20 members of Whidbey’s SAR unit, which consists of pilots and air crew, and one of only two corpsmen.

Missions involve two pilots, a crew chief, a corpsman and rescue swimmer.

With the unit’s other corpsman unavailable at the time of the call back to Mount Stuart, Papalski was needed for the mission.

By the time he got to bed when it was all over, he had been awake for 36 hours.

That isn’t the norm but was necessary on this occasion.

“A lot of times we don’t get a chance to stop and decompress just yet,” said Cdr. David Waner, the officer in charge of Whidbey SAR.

Waner called Papalski “an outstanding addition‚“ to the SAR unit.

“It’s a total crew concept,” Waner said. “The fact that he’s being recognized for the work he’s doing here brings credit to everyone here at SAAR. It’s five sets of eyes getting the aircraft safely into position to extract injured individuals to a higher level of care.”

Papalski will receive his award Nov. 4 at the Angels of the Battlefield Gala in Washington, D.C.