News: 1st Area Medical Laboratory tests new concept
Story by Lt. Col. Carol McClelland
ABERDEEN PROVING GROUND, Md. – The 1st Area Medical Laboratory tested a new concept during a field training exercise here, April 30 - May 4, that could revolutionize the unit’s framework.
The 1st AML is designed as a deployable analytical laboratory with a diagnostic capability to detect and identify environment contaminations that could harm warriors on the battlefield. The technicians provide combatant commanders with health hazard assessments of environmental, occupational, endemic and chemical, biological, radiological, nuclear or high-yield explosive threats, also called CBRNE, in support of force protection and weapons of mass destruction missions.
Sometimes called “soldier scientists” they test air, water, soil, food, waste and vectors like insects, animals and blood, for various kinds of contaminants. To do this, the unit was structured into three specific areas: biological, chemical and occupational health, according to Col. Anthony Bostick, the 1st AML commander who’s previously worked with special operation units.
“Right now in order to get all three aspects, we have to send the whole team,” Bostick explained. “Special operations units travel in small teams. I constantly heard the complaint that we’re too big; that we’d be requested monthly or every other month to deploy but when they see how large we are, we have too large of a footprint,” Bostick said.
So he reorganized his unit into six smaller, more mobile teams. Each team will have all three elements—bio., chem. and occupational health, using only 10-11 people verses 43 and a much smaller equipment load.
But testing the concept wasn’t easy.
“I think it’s hard for someone who doesn’t do this on a regular basis. It’s hard to grasp sometimes,” said Sgt. Trent Crews, a food inspector who traveled to Japan with the unit after the tsunami to do food and air radiation testing. Yesterday she did bacteria strains and looked at them under a microscope. Today, she learned how to use a water testing kit. “I think it’s nice to learn about the other team member’s equipment but some go to school for a year in comparison to me, and it’s kind of frustrating,” she said.
“The whole idea is to give a little familiarization so if they go out they know how to use the equipment,” said Capt. Sean Beeman, chief of occupational environmental health. Beeman thinks going to the lighter, more mobile concept increases his unit’s value to the Army. But it also increased his workload during the exercise.
With the new reorganization during the field exercise, each of the three chiefs oversaw two teams instead of one because while the AML is authorized 43 personnel, only 30 are available at all times. The 13 personnel not permanently assigned to the unit are from the Professional Filler System, or PROFIS, assigned to U.S. Army Medical Command organizations and fill in when required. Also the commander, executive officer, sergeant major and operations lead had to be part of the white cell (exercise proctors) as well as be part of the teams.
“It was very interesting to see some of the solutions they came up with and some were very creative, said Beeman who watched well sampling during the 24-hour operations. “For well sampling you use a bailer or other specific types of sampling equipment. But not everyone had all the same types of equipment on the six teams so team leaders had to become creative in order to collect samples they needed.”
While acknowledging the heightened frustration level, the AML commander said his personnel realized during the exercise that cross training is critical.
“They’re very bright soldiers and they pick up quickly so I don’t think it’s going to be a problem,” Bostick said.
Food inspector Crews said if it were a real situation, she thought the ones that had the expertise in a certain area would be sent.
“It was good to see and get hip-pocket training but I wouldn’t want someone else to do my mission,” Crews said.