March 9, 2008

Combat medics in Iraq ready when needed

By 2nd Lt. David E. Leiva
3rd Battalion 116th Infantry

AL ASAD AIR BASE, Iraq The minute the roadside bomb exploded, Spc. Eli Lovell’s heart pounded.

Palms sweaty and the adrenaline rushing, the convoy commander ordered Lovell out of the vehicle to evaluate the possible casualties after they failed to respond to repeated radio calls asking for their status.

There was another danger: The possibility of a secondary Improvised Explosive Device placed for first-responders.

Sprinting in the pitch dark along Baghdad’s most treacherous strip, Lovell and the commander came across the vehicle that had been struck.

They each opened one of the vehicle’s doors and stared at the two Soldiers, sitting there motionless, not responding to any questions being asked.

“Are you okay?” Lovell recalled asking them.

“I thought they were temporarily deaf from the explosion,” he said.

They were fine, although their lives had been disrupted by an IED planted by insurgents who intended to harm the Soldiers, not their vehicle.

That night, there was only one bomb.

So goes the life of a combat medic, affectionately referred to as “Doc” because he is the closest thing to a medical doctor out in desolate areas. Issued a 9mm handgun that he is not really expected to use, the medic accompanies each convoy in hopes his skills won’t be needed either.

In Bravo Company 3rd Battalion 116th Infantry, tasked with providing convoy security throughout western Iraq, the medics have logged more hours and miles on the road than any other Soldier.

Even after a two-week leave in January, Spc. Scott Dalrymple of Blacksburg, Va., has the most missions under his belt in the company. In seven years as a National Guardsman, this is his first deployment.

While confident in his abilities, Dalrymple can’t help but be candid. He admits the stress of being the sole person responsible for trauma care can take a toll.

“My worst fear is that somebody dies, and I can’t do anything about it,” he said.

So far, he’s only had to hand out band aids and aspirin.

Sgt. Samuel Anthony, 24, is fine with that. Anthony is Bravo’s senior medic on his second deployment to Iraq. He is still haunted by his first trip, where he worked on a Soldier who was hit by shrapnel during a mortar attack while eating dinner in Mosul.

Anthony was at the gym when it occurred, and Soldiers rushed in and asked if any medics were available. For 10 minutes, he tried everything, including a tracheomety, a hole cut into her throat to help her breathe. She died on the scene.

“I always wondered if I had gone to chow that night instead of working out what might have happened,” Anthony said. “What if I had been there?”

According to the Defense Department, as of mid-February, there had been nearly 30,000 Soldiers wounded in Iraq. More than half have returned to duty.

It’s a sobering figure. But the numbers, in many cases, could easily be Soldiers killed had it not been for expedient medical training.

“The most critical 10 minutes in a Soldier’s care in combat is the first 10 minutes. We’ve focused on the skills that would give us the greatest opportunity to evacuate an individual to a higher degree of health care,” said Col. Kevin Shwedo in an interview with The Associated Press last year.

Shwedo served as director of operations, plans and training for the Army Accessions Command, which oversees training.

With only a handful of military-trained medics in the company, Capt. Jeff Sink, Bravo’s commanding officer, ordered each Soldier to receive 40 hours of Combat Life Savers training, the Army’s answer to the medic shortage.

Taking a page from Plato’s “The Republic,” necessity has proven to be the mother of invention at Al Asad. Through an arrangement made by Sink with leaders of a battalion from the 82nd Airborne Division, Bravo Soldiers who could not complete the course prior to the deployment have been sitting through three intensive days of CLS.

Terms like “thinking outside the box” and “use all of your resources” forced Bravo leaders to also look within its ranks for Soldiers with civilian medical skills. Spc. Michael Kidd of Danville, Va., was one of the finds.

Insightful enough to bring some personal medical equipment on the deployment, the husky 33-year-old still figured he would be lugging around his M4 rifle because the military trained him to be an infantryman.

Instead, he is using his civilian skills as a nationally-certified paramedic, three levels higher than his military counterparts. At home Kidd works in an emergency room, where he has treated burn victims and revived people who have had heart attacks by performing CPR.

“I take pride in that my squad leader trusts me,” said Kidd, who has completed prerequisites to become a physician’s assistant. When he returns home, he hopes to be accepted at the Virginia Commonwealth University School of Medicine in Richmond.

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