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Future Military Doctors Hone Field Medicine Skills

By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service

CAMP BULLIS, Texas, Feb. 17, 2005 – A fictitious Middle Eastern country, Pandakar, was facing internal unrest and taking casualties. Fourth-year medical students at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences were called in to treat the patients.

Click photo for screen-resolution image
A fourth-year student at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences treats a simulated combat casualty during Operation Bushmaster at Camp Bullis, Texas. Photo by Seaman Kory Kepner, USN
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

Operation Bushmaster, a 72-hour exercise designed to expose future military doctors to the rigors of field medicine in a combat environment, was under way here.

As they treated "patients" actually students at nearby Fort Sam Houston the medical students from the Army, Navy and Air Force applied the clinical training they received at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., as well as the tactical skills they would need to survive on the battlefield.

"They have to defend themselves while they take care of the casualties," said Army Maj. Steve Currier, director for military contingency medicine at the Uniformed Services University.

That requires skills not taught in traditional medical schools: land navigation, nuclear-biological-chemical decontamination and weapons skills, among them, as well as the ability to live and operate in the field.

Although field skills are an integral part of Operation Bushmaster, Currier stressed that it's a practical exercise in tactical combat casualty care, not in infantry tactics. "We're teaching students to care for patients from the point of injury to the first surgical capability," he said.

Increased emphasis on treating patients as quickly and far forward as possible presents challenges traditional medical students aren't likely to encounter, from treating patients while under fire to working with far less equipment than they'd find in fixed medical facilities.

"The battlefield is not the same as home," Currier said. "Resources are limited, evacuation times are prolonged, and there are specific threats. It's a challenging environment."

For about half the class members, Operation Bushmaster offered a return to principles they learned during prior service in the Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine Corps, but with a new focus.

"We're not going to go off fighting the enemy, but anywhere the troops go, we're going to go, too," said Army 2nd Lt. Tom Dowd, a graduate of the U.S. Military Academy now preparing for a job in orthopedics at Brooke Army Medical Center. "Here, we're learning our roles so when we're out there (in combat), we're better able to come through."

Dowd said the realism of the training at Operation Bushmaster, which incorporates mock attacks and forces students to triage and evacuate patients while under fire and in chemical protective gear, got his and his fellow students' hearts pumping. "You're 'amped up' on adrenaline, and you have to assess the patients," he said. "It gives you a real sense of what you can expect."

Navy Ens. Sherry Jilinski said the training will pay tremendous dividends during future deployments providing medical support to the Marine Corps. Field medicine requires "a whole different mindset" than traditional medicine practiced in fixed facilities, she said, "and this is one of the few training opportunities for medical personnel before we're out there."

Air Force 2nd Lt. Valerie O'Brien said Operation Bushmaster, and her entire course of studies at the Uniformed Services University, is preparing her for the challenges she will face practicing medicine in a joint environment. "This allows us to be more familiar with the assets the other services have and what they do," she said. "It's exposure we just wouldn't be able to get in a different environment."

After completing their studies at the Uniformed Services University, graduates accept a seven-year military service obligation. "But the type of person you have here doesn't think of it as an obligation," said Dowd. "This is what we want to do. Our greatest aspiration is to provide care to the servicemembers fighting the global war on terror."

"This is our chance to serve that population that gives so much for our country," agreed O'Brien, a former enlisted soldier whose father also retired from the Army.

"There's a real sense of pride here," she said. "We're here because we believe in what we're doing, and that's how we view our training and our job."

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