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Military Medic Training In SA Changing With The Times

There are thousands of U.S. military medics, corpsmen and technicians deployed around the world, from war zones like Afghanistan to battalion aid stations, hospitals and clinics. In the last five years, almost all of them were trained in San Antonio, where updated technology is helping save lives.

Recreating a war zone

A bomb goes off. It’s noisy. It’s smoky. Lights are flashing, people are shouting. The bloody wounded are dying. This isn’t a war zone. It’s a simulator re-creating the real-life chaos and pressure. The trainees can feel what it’s like when seconds matter and lives are saved and lost.

"So this is a marketplace somewhere in the Middle East," describes Donald Parsons, Department of Combat Medic Training at the Medical Education and Training Campus at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio. "A suicide bomber came in, blew himself up, blew up a bunch of soldiers and civilians."

Private Michael Easterling, 22,  is one of the medics, corpsmen and technicians from all branches of the service training together here.

"It was pretty cool," Easterling said. "It was a lot of fun."

We're saving a heck of a lot more lives on the battlefield. ~ Army Col. Keith Michael Johnson
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Young men and women from all over the country train at the Medical Education and Training Campus at Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio.

All Roads Lead to SA

The consolidation is part of the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure legislation. San Antonio was chosen because of training already taking place here and room to build.

The young men and women from around the country number 5,000 on any given day.  The campus graduates 18,000 service members a year in 48 programs, from radiology to surgical technology. Three-quarters of them serve with troops. The other 25 percent are assigned to hospitals.

The pressure is intense because the end game is so important. Military medical training has evolved as warfare has changed. The difference is not in the injuries, it’s in how they are treated. From cannonballs during the American Revolution, to musket fire in the Civil War, to IEDs in Iraq, bleeding and trauma are still the biggest threats to life and limb. 21st century training gives the wounded a fighting chance.

"We’re saving a heck of a lot more lives on the battlefield," commented Col. Keith Michael Johnson.  

Figures from the Journal of Trauma and Acute Care Surgery  show during World War II, 19 percent of those hurt in combat ended up dying. In Vietnam, that statistic dropped to 15 percent. In modern conflicts, 9 percent of the wounded ended up losing their lives.

Parsons was a medic in Vietnam. He was trained to civilian standards. His students learn trauma techniques through a military lens. Call it 'battlefield medicine.'

"It's dramatically different than it is in treating trauma in the civilian community because it addresses the underlying tactical situation," Parsons said.

Modern protocols

Medics used to be discouraged from using tourniquets to stanch the flow of blood for fear it would lead to more amputations. Now experts know that as long as a tourniquet is applied first and left on for less than two hours, the bleeding can be stopped and the arm or leg can be saved.

Forty years ago, morphine was the standard painkiller on the front lines. Now, medics have other effective drugs in their kit, including a synthetic opioid called Fentanyl and Ketamine for starting anesthesia.

Transfusions in the field help the wounded hemorrhaging and in shock. Frontline medics can even help those who can’t breathe live long enough to get hospital help by inserting tracheotomies in the throat.

"They can stabilize the person and get them back," Johnson explained.

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Human simulators have vital signs that help trainees practice taking blood pressure, stopping bleeding and delivering IVs.

Realistic dummies

Technology has made a big difference. One hundred patient simulators at the school make hands on training feel more real. The mannequins move, groan and have vital signs.

Today we have human patient simulators that are just like people. They have pulses, they have blood pressure, they breathe. So we can more realistically simulate what a real-life casualty would be like.

As for the service members stepping in to the fake Middle Eastern marketplace or the mocked up Afghan mountainous terrain, their classroom training suddenly seems all the more relevant.

Easterling was enthusiastic about his time in the simulator. "It gives us the hands-on training that we need so that we get more prepared for when we eventually end up going out into the field and doing our jobs," he said.

"It’s really effective," commented fellow student Private Victor DelReal. "It puts you in that mentality where people are going to be screaming at you. There are going to be gunshots. There’s going to be everything going on around you. So you have to get into that mindset where you can just block everything out and focus on your casualty."

Depending on the course, students spend 6 weeks to 13 months at the San Antonio campus, honing their skills. Army information gathered over the last 15 years from Iraq and Afghanistan shows if frontline military medical personnel can get the wounded to the hospital alive, 97 percent of them will live to tell their story.