By Paul Wood
URBANA — In five deployments to Afghanistan, Staff Sgt. Brent Blackwell was a medic for an elite unit, the Army Rangers, who “surgically went after the bad guys.”
As a Ranger himself, Blackwell, 27, took on dangerous infantry duties while not serving as a medic. He was part of a group with specific targets rather than routine patrols or IED checks.
Now a University of Illinois junior, Blackwell is pre-med in kinesiology. He had eight weeks in the Rangers to learn what comes up in two semesters of anatomy here.
“It was all day for eight weeks,” he says. “It was very different from here. If you nodded off, you did pushups until you woke up. They yelled at you a lot. You were motivated.”
Blackwell grew up in the Chicago suburb of Lindenhurst.
He signed his papers to join the Army while in high school, went through basic and was sent to San Antonio to begin a series of training sessions for the elite Rangers.
He went to Fort Benning, Ga., for airborne training. He was in the Ranger Assessment and Selection Program and underwent training to be a special-operations medic.
After the extensive training, he was assigned to the 2nd Ranger Battalion, and then deployed to Afghanistan for the first time.
“Rangers are infantry,” he says, “and every infantry unit needs support, from cooks to medics.”
That meant he was part of the team seeking the most dangerous targets.
“But I got to skip some of the worst work details,” he says.
Still, “they didn’t always need medics, so I would clear out rooms with guys. We’re the precision instruments. I got to wear two hats.”
But Blackwell also dealt with grenade and gunshot wounds before the Rangers could be taken by medevac to a hospital.
The medevacs were challenging, he says, trying to find room for a Blackhawk helicopter landing on the side of a mountain or in a confined space.
“I wouldn’t say I could take credit for saving anyone’s life,” he says. “But we got them to where they could be helped.”
And not all his medic work involved combat.
“Somebody might be sick, or their ankle rolled out,” Blackwell says.
His deployments lasted anywhere from three-and-a-half to six months.
As a pre-med student, a lot of his kinesiology classes have connections to his medic training.
“It’s definitely a different environment,” the junior says. “I’m probably more focused, being an older student; my goals are very clear.”
He has served as an officer in Illini Veterans; there are more than 400 veterans at the UI.
Blackwell hopes to go to medical school at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, because he has friends at nearby Fort Bragg.
“The Ranger units are pretty close,” he says.
Do you know a veteran who could share a story about military service? Contact staff writer Paul Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org.