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Medics Hone Skills in Sri Lanka "War"

By Douglas J. Gillert
American Forces Press Service

SAN ANTONIO, Texas, Feb. 4, 1999 – The possibility of blast wounds looms large for U.S. service members when they deploy to areas where land mines are used or still buried from past conflicts. Military doctors need to know how to treat land mine wounds before they head to battlefields with U.S. troops. In October 1998, a group of medics from each of the services got that chance in Sri Lanka.

The Institute of Surgical Research at Fort Sam Houston here set up the first of several planned field trips to Sri Lanka and potentially to Ethiopia and Eritrea. The joint-service team worked out of the National Hospital in Colombo, the Sri Lankan capital. Army Dr. (Maj.) Robert Harris said the three-and-a-half week visit provided vital training and experience to the American medics.

The island off southern India called Ceylon before 1972, Sri Lanka has been ravaged by ethnic, religious and political factions that have been fighting each other since the mid-1950s. Many thousands of Sri Lankans have died or been injured over the years, and they regularly fall victim today to land mines, and gunshot and shrapnel wounds.

"This is the best place we can send people, with minimal force protection, where they can see and treat these kinds of wounds," said Harris, the institute's extremity trauma branch chief. Each service sends doctors, who return home to train others. He said the visits can provide DoD with a widespread knowledge and experience in dealing with blast wounds that could mean life or death to future U.S. troops.

Host nations benefit, too, he added. While their primary mission is training, the doctors express great satisfaction from helping another country treat its wounded, he said.

Harris will join the next team going to Sri Lanka this spring. He said he hopes they will be able to work out of a military hospital instead of the civilian facility. A second spring trip is slated, and medics from Fort Bragg, N.C., will conduct a third later in the year.

Whether future deployments occur depends on the success of this year's deployments, Harris said. "Depending on funding and analysis, we hope the program will continue," he said. "We want to develop an indigenous medical capability within DoD to treat and rehabilitate land mine survivors."

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