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Ready for Anything: Reserve doc battles nature, completes second austere medicine course

  • Published
  • By Bo Joyner
  • Citizen Airman Magazine

It took 18 years, but Air Force Reserve physician Lt. Col. (Dr.) Jesse Wells has completed both the austere winter and summer medicine courses at the Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center located in the Sierra Mountains near Bridgeport, California.

The center was spun up in the midst of the Korean War for pre-deployment cold weather training after the Department of Defense realized the majority of U.S. casualties were the result of frostbite and hypothermia.

After being mothballed for nearly a decade during the Vietnam War, the center reopened in 1976 and served a key role in preparing soldiers for deployment into the mountains of Afghanistan. The operations tempo at the center continues to accelerate, and today includes year-round courses as well as large combat training exercises for Marine battalions. It also serves as a training platform for allied forces.

The center hosts two wilderness medicine courses.

In 2004, Wells, then a captain, completed the two-week Summer Medicine Course. He was the only participant not from the Navy and the only Reservist in the class.

Wells, who currently serves as a ground surgical team member with the 349th Medical Squadron at Travis Air Force Base, California, still remembers much about the class, including finishing first among all 24 students during the day one run up “Heart Attack Hill” and the successive daily field exercises, each one more strenuous and technically difficult than the last.

“After learning to rappel, including a technique using only backpacks as friction devices, we were supervised raising and lowering patients in stretchers, first on steep slopes and then over the sides of cliffs,” Wells said.

The doctor said he clearly recalls the course finale.

“It was an overnight exercise followed by a competition between two platoons chased by ‘enemy’ forces,” he said. “The only escape route required crossing a deep canyon using a rope high-line over a raging river… and pulling a litter patient across.” Wells led the winning platoon.

“We finished the last six kilometers in a half-run with full combat loads, watching over our shoulders to make sure we outpaced the other platoon. The stakes were high. The losing platoon had to clean the ‘head.’”

Fast forward to January 2022. Eighteen years after completing the summer course, Wells returned to test himself again at the winter course.

“I had always intended to return for the winter course, but family and civilian career, i.e. life, didn’t provide an opening,” he said. 

The class was supposed to have 45 students, but after losses from COVID screenings, the class size was down to 31. Once again, Wells was the only Air Force attendee and the only Reservist. In addition to Navy Corpsmen and doctors, there were three Navy Seals and two Army Rangers enrolled in the class.

“In classic Marine Corps fashion, the first day featured a PT test at an elevation of 6,600 feet – pull-ups, planks and a three-mile run,” Wells said. At age 51, Wells didn’t finish first in the run this time. “But I came in fifth and beat the Rangers and two of the Seals,” he said.

On day three, the whole class was moved out of the barracks in response to more students showing COVID symptoms. Students were forced to pitch tents and isolate in teams of four. “We had to shovel out the snow in order to set up tents,” Wells said. “That first night in the tent was miserable with the temperature dropping to 9 degrees Fahrenheit and I foolishly left my second sleeping bag in the barracks.”

For the next few days, instead of lectures in a classroom, students learned about altitude sickness and hypothermia on dry erase boards stuck in the snow.

The morning of day five started with the ‘hypothermia lab.” The night before, students swallowed pellets containing a wireless thermometer and, after being attached to skin temperature probes, plunged through the ice into a pond where they had to remain in water up to their chin for 10 minutes.

“I volunteered for a research protocol where you couldn’t exercise after getting out of the water,” Wells said. “Instead, you got in your sleeping bag and warmed up passively while being monitored. I shivered like a jackhammer for 25 minutes.”

The final two weeks of the course took place in the field at around 9,000 feet of elevation. Field scenarios included repeatedly rushing to locate and dig out buried avalanche beacons, wrapping and pulling student “casualties” in litter sleds and using ropes to raise and lower litter sleds up and down steep slopes.

One night was survival night where pairs of students were given a single MRE and had to make an improvised shelter and start a fire.

The final field exercise involved instructors firing off pyrotechnics to simulate incoming artillery and moving multiple patients over difficult terrain for most of the day, including setting up warming stations along the casualty evacuation route.

“Despite COVID, they finally moved us back into the barracks, and that bunk bed mattress felt like sleeping in a five-star hotel every time we came in from the field,” Wells said.

Other than losses from COVID, all students passed the written examination, knot test and field exercise.

Marine Corps Lt. Nicholas Roberts, the officer in charge of the course, said he was impressed by Wells’ performance during the difficult training.

“Dr. Wells brought considerable medical experience to the course which he shared with the other students, benefiting the entire class,” he said. “Additionally, in a class of 20-year-olds, Dr. Wells was always out front pulling the most weight and contributing physically more than most anyone else. The instructor cadre was very impressed with his medical and physical performance.”

He added that Wells completing the two courses 18 years apart is motivation for others in the medical field.

“Certainly, Dr. Wells’ dedication to wilderness medicine throughout his extended military career is impressive and encouraging to younger wilderness medicine physicians,” he said.