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Military Med Students Pay Attention During WMD Classes

By Gerry J. Gilmore
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, June 25, 2002 – These days, students at DoD's medical school are very attentive during courses about weapons of mass destruction, say senior officials at the facility in Bethesda, Md.

The Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, created by Congress in 1972 to train doctors and nurses for military service, has graduated nearly 3,000 physicians since its inception and has provided advanced instruction to hundreds of graduate students, including nurses, officials said.

USU has always offered courses about biological, chemical and nuclear/radiological weapons, said Army Dr. (Col.) Clifford C. Cloonan, chairman of the School of Medicine's Department for Military and Emergency Medicine. However, he noted, the school's focus on WMDs and student interest in such matters have ballooned since terrorists attacked the United States nine months ago.

Formerly, Cloonan noted, WMD instruction was presented to students based upon potential use of biological, chemical and nuclear weapons by enemy forces on a conventional battlefield. Until Sept. 11, he said, there seemed to be little chance that a full-scale, conventional war featuring WMDs would erupt in the post-Cold War era.

Today, he pointed out, the reality is that non-state actors or terrorists or so-called rogue nations might employ such weapons.

Cloonan noted the specter of terrorists unleashing WMDs on American troops based stateside or overseas, or against the U.S. civilian population, also raises the issue of military-civilian cooperation during disaster relief operations.

"It's a big deal now," he said. "We've certainly (addressed it) at the school."

In light of the terror assaults on America, it's no wonder that students -- who may one day be called upon to treat WMD casualties -- pay rapt attention during WMD lectures, said Air Force Dr. (Col.) Joseph M. Palma, Cloonan's department vice chair.

Palma said students were businesslike during WMD and related courses before Sept. 11. Today, student interest in such subjects is heightened. WMD course lecturers now report "dynamic discussions" between students and faculty about WMD issues, he said.

Medical student Army 2nd Lt. Dennis M. Sarmiento, 28, from Queens, New York, began the university's four-year medical program in August 2000. Starting his third year, he said the school has so far addressed nuclear, biological, chemical weapons effects, immediate treatment procedures, the services' capabilities, and how to take care of contaminated casualties.

The 1995 West Point graduate spent five years as an active duty armor officer before joining the USU student body.

During his armor days, Sarmiento recalled, "we always trained for NBC contingencies. We would shoot the tanks' guns in a protective posture -- hatches closed, gas masks on." During other field exercises, "we'd occasionally get hit by an NBC attack, usually chemical (simulated), to test the battle drills we had in place," he added.

The native New Yorker has another pre-med-school perspective about WMDs: He served in Kuwait from August 1998 to January 1999 and participated in Operation Desert Fox during a tense time.

In the fall of 1998 Iraq regularly fired missiles at coalition aircraft patrolling the country's no-fly zones. The United Nations had established the zones after the Gulf War as a means of containing Saddam Hussein.

At about the same time, Iraqi officials refused to cooperate with U.N. weapons inspectors who had been searching the country for Hussein's WMD capabilities. Iraq had agreed to dismantle its WMD capability as part of terms it signed to end the Gulf War.

A U.S. show of force, culminated in the December Desert Fox air campaign, which included British participation. Coalition bombs and missiles hit Iraqi airfields, bunker, maintenance facilities, Republican Guard barracks and headquarters, radio-jamming centers, and ballistic missile facilities. Ordnance was also aimed at suspected WMD manufacturing plants and missile-delivery systems.

Desert Fox led Hussein to agree to unfettered U.N. access to inspect suspected Iraqi WMD facilities and to stop harassing U.N. air patrols. However, the Iraqi dictator soon reneged. U.N. weapons inspectors haven't been in Iraq since late 1998, and the Iraqis still occasionally challenge coalition aircraft patrols.

Sarmiento said his unit was sent to Kuwait on a regular training rotation, but extended a couple of extra weeks. During the deployment, he recalled, the "soldiers just kept on going (and displayed) very little whining." The troops, he added, experienced "a renewed sense of purpose" as they confronted Saddam Hussein across the border.

After completing his initial five-year commitment, Sarmiento, whose father is a bio-medical engineer at a Brooklyn hospital, started work on his lifelong goal to become a doctor.

"I was planning to go straight to medical school from the academy, but decided to get field experience first," he explained. "For me, having served already and seeing how important our soldiers are, this is probably a better way for me to serve."

At the school on Sept. 11, Sarmiento said, faculty were looking for available doctors to provide assistance to medical folks at the Pentagon, like triage care. "There was a lot going on that day," he added.

Sarmiento pointed out that the subject of terrorism and related WMD issues have taken on added significance at USU -- and throughout the nation.

"There is definitely a heightened awareness of terrorism and the possible use of NBC weapons at the school," he said. "(The WMD threat) reinforces the fact that we really need to learn our profession well, perhaps more than civilian doctors, because we're more likely to deal with that kind of contingency and treat military casualties and, possibly, civilian casualties as well.

"(Sept. 11) forced us to re-evaluate what resources we have on hand to deal with that kind of attack and the kind of casualties it would produce."

Sarmiento noted that service members are uniquely familiar with WMD issues. NBC training in the military, he said, starts at basic and continues with unit training. Planning for WMD contingencies is embedded in today's military culture, he said.

"You develop a standard operating procedure, or drill, to react to NBC attack," he explained. Such plans, he added, routinely include information such as what an NBC attack would be like; immediate response steps, including proper use of protective equipment; how to identify and treat NBC injuries; decontamination procedures; and who to notify if there is an NBC attack.

He said he believes President Bush's battle plan for the war against global terrorism is a good one.

"This is going to be a protracted effort," he said. For one thing, well-defined goals were established early on, to include preventing al Qaeda and the Taliban from using Afghanistan as a base of operations. "I think we're going about things the right way."

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