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Nebraska medics use battlefield experiences in field training

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Bill Huntington
  • 442nd Fighter Wing Public Affairs
Reservists in the 710th Medical Squadron, one of the 442nd Fighter Wing's two geographically separated units at Offutt AFB, Neb., took to the field during their April unit training assembly to hone their deployed-operations skills.

The field-training exercise at Offutt's base lake has been something of an annual tradition for the medics. Although this year's exercise was not as large in scope as previous years, it was no less ambitious in its goal of keeping the squadron's members ready to perform even under austere conditions.

"We've done some incredible exercises," said Tech. Sgt. Wayne Cantwell, aerospace medical technician and one of the planners for this year's exercise. "We want to ensure that our members are ready for the deployed environment when they get called up or when they volunteer to go overseas. It has proven invaluable."

According to Sergeant Cantwell preparing for the exercise is very labor intensive. He said planning started four to five months before the exercise began and his "laundry list" of to-dos included organizing the logistics, getting the equipment prepared, preparing training scenarios, building documentation, obtaining commander approvals, factoring in safety considerations and, of course, meeting the financial aspect of the undertaking.

"This year I was thankful to have Tech. Sgt. Shawn Barnard and Senior Airman Andrew Rebant take the lead on a lot of this," Sergeant Cantwell said. "There are a lot of man-hours involved, and Sergeant Bernard did much of the leg work."

The 2008 exercise featured a series of stations that focused on deployed medical skills areas like triage, operating in a chemical environment and a litter-carry obstacle course. Five- and six-person teams circulated through each of the stations responding to scenarios, making life and death decisions and all the while digesting the lessons learned from each experience.

A spirit of competition was added as members were graded on their actions with the team accumulating the most points being declared the winner.

A hallmark of these exercises has been using lessons learned from real-world situations to help prepare the reservists for combat and this year was no exception.

A veteran of deployments to Kuwait and to Iraq, Sergeant Cantwell served as an instructor at the litter-carry obstacle course. There, the teams had to negotiate several barriers to reach a victim. Once there Sergeant Cantwell recited the wounded patient's symptoms, and the teams responded accordingly to stabilize and prepare the individual for transport back over the same course just taken.

Safety and risk management took precedence over all activities, a fact pointed out by Col. Joan Gonzalez, 710th MDS commander.

"I was real impressed with my instructors. They were focused on training and yet always aware of potentially unsafe actions," she said. "When they saw something that concerned them they stopped the activity and corrected the action, which was very good,"

She cited the careful-transport training for litter patients over obstacles as an example.

Another experienced 710th MDS member is Lt. Col. Howard Phillippi, the squadron's chief nurse. Colonel Phillippi recently returned from an Afghanistan deployment where he gained a wealth of experience.

When he first got to Afghanistan he thought he'd be working in a real hospital but two days after he arrived they had told him he would be going to "Salerno" and immediately visions of Salerno, Italy, came to mind.

"I got so excited, I couldn't see straight," Colonel Phillippi said with a smile.

Camp Salerno, however, was a forward operating base near the Pakistan border just north of Khwost, Afghanistan.

With the only similarity of the two locations being the name, the colonel soon faced the realities of life at a forward operating base treating not only coalition wounded but also local Afghans and even some Taliban.

It was an experience that he knew would be valuable in teaching his fellow squadron members about when he returned home and the FTX gave him the perfect opportunity.

"We're taught in the United States that the first things you start with (when assessing a trauma patient) are airway, breathing and circulation, in that order (to stabilize patients)," Colonel Phillippi said.

"On the battle field, in a surgical field hospital at a forward operating base like where I was, we always had to take care of the bleeding problems first along with the breathing problems," he said. "Usually the injuries are so massive and traumatic that they would bleed to death very quickly so stopping the bleeding was a top priority."

It was something he tried to drive home during the exercise. He taught other valuable lessons he learned in Afghanistan.

"I was training them (in the exercise) that when you do your primary assessment - checking them from head to toe - that it's not over,''he said. "You go over them again, or you turn them over and you look at them on the back side too. You may roll somebody over, and they've got a bigger wound there than they did on the front."

Another reality was the composition of the various medical disciplines in each team. While there might be nurses and doctors assigned at a forward location, they might not be in a position to perform triage. They might be might be in surgery when more wounded are brought in and the others present - medical technicians, lab workers or x-ray technicians - would have to do all of the triage and care.

"We had three technical sergeants, an airman first class and a senior airman (on my team)," said Tech. Sgt. Angela Harroun, a medical material troop. "I had to ask a lot of questions because I wasn't sure of the all of the terms or how to treat a lot of the wounds."

For the exercise, members of a Boy Scouts of America troop filled in as patients and moulage wounds were used to add realism. The boys took their roles seriously by mimicking the actions of someone wounded.

"The obstacle course and the station with the Boy Scouts acting as victims with blast and concussion injuries from a building collapse were the most beneficial training stations," Sergeant Harroun said. "If I'm on my own now I'll know what to look for and how to treat it. I'll be able to instruct other people on how to help too.

"If I do deploy and they look at me and say 'I need help' then I'll feel more confident in helping them," she said.

"We tried to get these teams to function together, to communicate with each other, to get the job done, to get the mission accomplished, to retrieve the patient, to treat their injuries and get them back the quickest, most efficient and safest manner possible," Sergeant Cantwell said. For him, Sergeant Harroun's words translated into "mission accomplished."

Even though the training goals for the exercise were met, and Colonel Gonzalez was proud of the squadron's performance, she felt another valuable byproduct of the effort was learning where the squadron's weaknesses lay and factoring that knowledge into future training plans.

"If we ran a flawless exercise every time I would question if we were pushing our people hard enough," Colonel Gonzalez said. "This is the opportunity for me to be able to see where we are and what we can improve upon. All of this helped me see what kind of training we'll need to do over the next 12 months."

She was quick to add that she knew her people had a culture of continuous improvement and they were ready for it.

"The members here love the mission, they love what they do and they love supporting the war fighter," Colonel Gonzalez said. "They are staunch believers of the Wingman concept and they have a true patriotism that I would argue would be hard to match."