FORT IRWIN, CA, UNITED STATES
FORT IRWIN, Calif. – "Let's go! He's bleeding out! Hurry up and get him to the FST!" yelled the medics assigned to Medical Troop, Regimental Support Squadron, 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment during a training exercise in a crowded tent at the National Training Center, Fort Irwin, Calif., May 31.
The medics quickly, but tenderly picked up the screaming Soldier with a simulated bullet wound and moved him into the next tent where Soldiers from the 948th Forward Surgical Team, an Army Reserve unit from Southfield, Mich., were already preparing their tools for the surgery.
In order to save lives on the battlefield, the two teams have to work flawlessly together and there's no better place to practice teamwork than the simulated combat environment at NTC.
"The patient that was brought in here was exactly like a little Iraqi girl we performed surgery on in Al Kut, Iraq, back in 2008," said operating room specialist, Staff Sgt. Carlos P. Shelton, a native of Lincoln Park, Mich., assigned to the 948th FST. "She was about 12 years old and shot in the chest."
Shelton and his FST improvised a way to position the girl with wool blankets and proceeded to find out that her lung had collapsed thus compressing her heart with the air that should have been filling her lungs. The girl had a very short time to live and couldn't be airlifted to a hospital in time to save her. That's when the FST took over.
"We performed surgery on her and the next morning the doctor that took her at the hospital called and told us she was sitting in bed watching cartoons," said Shelton with a smile. "It's pretty gratifying. Without our intervention, she would have definitely died … I obviously don't do it for the money, but service to country and to people. It doesn't matter, U.S. or Iraqi."
Shelton, who works as a civilian registered nurse and a surgical first assistant in a hospital, brings skills he has honed in Iraq and at his civilian job to the 14-day extended combat training his unit has been going through at NTC.
"We have what we call a 'golden hour' to save the patients," continued Shelton. "Every minute counts."
With constant open communication and a joint diagnosis, the team wastes no time.
"When we find out we have casualties, we go through and triage the people to figure out who needs surgery the most," explained Sgt. Angela L. Grimes, combat medic non-commissioned officer in charge assigned to Medical Troop, RSS, 3rd ACR.
In most cases, an FST of about 20 Soldiers is attached to a medical company and work hand-in-hand with them to communicate how to best care for patients.
According to Shelton, there are certain categories for medical care in the field that patients can receive. A level one is like a combat medic attached to a platoon, whereas a level two is a combat support hospital and a level three is a full hospital where almost anything can be treated.
"When we're attached to a medical troop, both units are like a two plus," explained Shelton. "An FST brings field surgeons that can handle certain critical patients instead of using a medevac helicopter to get them out."
Though the Soldiers weren't performing real surgery on patients, they went through a systematic process to help it become second nature during training.
"When we go through this training, we can nail the steps in our Soldiers heads and our ultimate goal is to help the patient," Shelton said. "In order to do that, we have to see how many patients we can do the best for and we do that evaluation with the medical troop … Their team is part of our team. We're integrated and all working together as one."
Though Grimes did mention that it was different to hear the FST Soldiers talk about their other jobs back home, she said the differences ended there.
"I haven't noticed any difference between the Reserve and Active Soldiers. They're all just Soldiers like me," added Grimes as another medevac helicopter dropping off mock patients blasted sand into the tent. "It's been really cool working with them."
"I've got a lot of inexperienced medics with me and those guys have been giving technical classes to us that have helped a lot," added Grimes.
Shelton and FST commander, Capt. Chris E. Mullen, a native of Albion, Mich., have brought training presentations from working in the civilian medical field to help the less experienced troops at NTC.
Grimes said they taught a class on how to surgically help a patient breathe, how to work the complex surgical ultrasound machines and a slide presentation on patient airways.
"When your outside job has something to do with your Army job, it definitely brings something extra to the table," said Grimes then added with a smile. "I even asked them if they wanted to deploy with us!"
Most of the Soldiers in the FST have jobs directly relating to what they do in the Army, but the Army was the stepping stone that propelled them in that direction.
"I didn't know what I wanted to do after I got out of Advanced Individual Training," admitted Shelton who has been in the Army for more than 11 years. "It opened a door to being a registered nurse and I took it."
"It makes me more dynamic in the team because I can walk though with the surgical techs and tell them this is what they need or that is what they need," explained Shelton after giving a step-by-step class to his Soldiers on what to do with the gunshot wounded patient.
"The injuries that we're seeing here are very appropriate," Shelton continued. "It's very realistic compared to Iraq and that's hard to train on, but the amount of training here is great for us … Having to make those critical decisions in a short amount of time; it's very good."
Just as one patient is treated and leaves the operating room, another one is shuffled in. Many of them have fake blood rubbed on their bodies and are screaming in pain to add to the realism of the training.
"I remember seeing the eyes of my medics and they were going, 'Oh my God!' Because there were real amputees with squirting blood," said Grimes who has deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan. "This training is really preparing young Soldiers for what it's really like over there."
For Soldiers who have just graduated from AIT a few months ago like Spc. Patrica M. Diggs, an operating room specialist from Flint, Mich., assigned to the 948th FST, the training at NTC is eye-opening.
"This a lot more intense, because you actually see what injuries people face over there," Diggs said. "I thought the amputee was just an actor until I saw that one leg really was longer than the other one. He explained that he was a combat medic and lost it overseas, but now is helping to train us."
Diggs added that Soldiers like that really bring home the reality of what can happen in a combat environment. In a forward deployed medical unit, one can never know what type of patient is going to come in.
Teamwork and training can make the difference between life and death in the field. There's no better place to bring all these elements together than the intense training Soldiers are going through every day in the middle of the Mojave Desert at NTC to make that golden hour a success.
||FORT IRWIN, CA, US
This work, Golden Hour in the Desert: Reserve Medics Team up to Practice Lifesaving, by MSG Mark Burrell, identified by DVIDS, is free of known copyright restrictions under U.S. copyright law.