Technology, Transformation Improve Battlefield Health Care
By Kathleen T. Rhem
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, March 13, 2003 Advances in technology and changes in procedures are leading to improved health care for troops before, during and after deployments.
"An array of medical technologies and capabilities" is being used to provide "layers of protection" to U.S. service members on the modern battlefield, the Defense Department's top physician said today.
Vaccines, protective and detective equipment, and first-rate front-line care combine to ensure American forces are prepared to face any threat, Dr. William Winkenwerder, assistant secretary of defense for health affairs, said in a Pentagon press briefing with several military medical experts.
Never before have military forces deployed with such comprehensive protection and detection capabilities for dealing with biological or chemical attacks, a special assistant to the defense secretary said.
Anna Johnson-Winegar, deputy assistant to the secretary of defense for chemical and biological defense programs, said the equipment U.S. forces massing in the Persian Gulf today have is "world-class" and "unsurpassed."
Iraq's Saddam Hussein is known to have produced both chemical and biological weapons. He has used chemical weapons in the Iran-Iraq War during the 1980s and against unarmed civilians among minority Kurds in northern Iraq.
Large amounts of chemical and biological agents are unaccounted for in Iraq's disarmament efforts to date, according to U.N. inspectors who have worked in the country and U.S. and international intelligence experts.
No "silver bullet" system exists that can deal with all biological and chemical threats, Johnson-Winegar said. Experts have put together an integrated, overlapping succession of systems that includes several different components to protect military members.
U.S. troops are equipped with much more modern and sensitive detectors and sensors than their predecessors in the Gulf War were. Also, the new JSLIST suit -- Joint Service Lightweight Integrated Suit Technology -- is lighter than previous suits, "launderable" and longer lasting, Johnson-Winegar said.
New shelters are designed to protect troops in one place for longer periods of time. Some of the new shelters available to U.S. forces in the Persian Gulf even allow medical specialists to provide care on a contaminated battlefield.
Pre- and post-deployment health screenings and a 30 million-sample Defense Department serum repository provide baseline information that would prove vital to uncovering health issues like those Gulf War veterans reported after that 1991 conflict, Winkenwerder's deputy, Ellen Embrey, said.
A new state-of-the-art theaterwide health-information surveillance system could help recognize any biological attack or environmental hazard much more quickly than has previously been possible, she said. This new system would also recognize causes of diseases and nonbattle injuries, which historically have caused more casualties than battle in any conflict.
Navy Adm. (Dr.) John Mateczun explained that besides being the right thing to do for America's men and women in uniform, force health protection measures are sound military strategy. Sick and wounded soldiers can't fight.
The admiral is the senior medical adviser to the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. He said protecting service members' health is a career-long goal. He spoke of several recent innovations that have radically improved force health protection, the foremost being the advent of forward surgical capabilities.
Deploying surgical teams to forward locations has allowed more service members to receive life-saving care within the "golden hour" after an injury. Medical experts say that if an injured individual can receive advanced medical care within the first hour after an injury, the individual's chances for survival and recovery go up exponentially.
Having surgical teams forward deployed with fighting forces allows this to happen. Mateczun noted that in Operation Enduring Freedom, nearly all patients who lived until they reached a forward surgical team survived.
Army Lt. Gen. James Peake, that service's surgeon general, said the Army has expanded training for its field medics. Today, all Army medics have an emergency medical technician basic level certification.
Advances in technology are also helping save lives on the battlefield. Navy Surgeon General Vice Adm. Michael Cowen noted a new bandage, impregnated with a chemical that encourages blood clotting has been approved by the Food and Drug Administration. He said the services are already starting to field these bandages.
In an interview after the briefing, Mateczun recalled the scene dramatized in the movie "Black Hawk Down," in which a soldier bled to death because his team's medic couldn't clamp his femoral artery and the tactical situation made it impossible to get him to advanced medical care. A bandage that promoted clotting could go a long way in preventing such tragedies by keeping service members alive until they could reach a forward surgical team, he said.
The bottom line, Winkenwerder said, is that DoD medical experts are taking many and varied measures to prevent injury to service members and treat illnesses and injuries should they occur.
"Our message to you, to our service members, to their families and to the American people is that we are prepared," he said. "And we will take extraordinary measures to protect and care for people should we be called to do so."