Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Training Like You're Fighting a War

At some point it came out near certain military bases that the military used live animals to train their Medics and Corpsmen.  The resulting response was immediate and visceral.   Animal cruelty, was tossed around and the military quietly stopped training Medics and Corpsman in this fashion.  That would have been the end of this story until the causalities in Iraq and Afghanistan reached an unparalleled high and the military just as quietly re-instituted the program.  The official title was TC3 Trauma/Critical Casualty Care, and it was initially a two week course with a day long live tissue lab.  Live tissue, in this case was Goats, thus the course was euphemistically dubbed the Goat Lab.   

I went through this course when I was training up for the Surge, and at the time it was considered absolutely vital I know how to do things that in the civilian world only MDs are allowed to do.  Chest tubes, Chrics, Trachs, we even did the "Black Hawk Down" bleed, replicating the injury to the femoral artery that killed Cpl Jamie Smith.  All of this training was considered vital.  It was considered so vital, that knowing the sensitivity of what we were doing, we were not allowed to speak of it.  We were told that if we told anyone, wives girlfriends sweet hearts, even the Infantry we supported, word of the program might get out and it would be shut down. 

I am here to tell you I learned things there that did in fact save at least two lives.  Despite my year working in the Carl R Darnall Army Medical Center ER, and the many, many, cases I worked on, and despite a previous deployment to Iraq, I learned things that I simply did not know.  Things which had I been cut off for any reason might have become even more vital.  I learned the importance of plugging the wound, and not being gentle when someone is hemorrhaging.  I learned how to manage a casualty that had multiple issues, and I learned just how quickly medications act.  The problem is that the Goat Lab came if you ask me too late in my career.  I think there is perhaps one life that I might have saved on my first tour if I had known what I knew after I went to the Goat Lab.

There in lies the problem with training for war.  You see the Goat Lab makes people squirm, but it will save lives.  There are other forms of training, such as SERE (Survival Evade Resist Escape) school where they literally put the candidates through hell, and yet the lessons learned there have saved lives.  Case in point Captain Scott O'Grady, who survived for nearly 6 days, sometimes with the enemy just feet away from him.  Had he not gone through the course it is not only possible, but almost a certainty that Captain O'Grady would have received a swift execution, and his body might never have been recovered.   

When I was in Basic Training, I remember going to the Rodger Young range where I would literally have live ammunition fired over my head.  The event took place at night, and a Drill Sergeant was accompanying each platoon to ensure that they were preforming the proper crawl, and that no idiot stuck their head up.  You were lead along a WWI style trench which bordered a swamp, then a the Drill Sergeant would say "Ready?  GO!  GO!  GO!" and just like that you went up and over and started high crawling towards where the towers were that were shooting at you.  You want to talk about scary?  The dead of night, it's pitch black and LIVE tracers are whizzing over your head.  To make things more interesting they also had a series of "no mans land" like obstacles you had to navigate around. 

Why did I need this training?  Most civilians would argue that the training was not even remotely safe, so why did I need it?  For one very simple reason; How would you react under real fire, if you've never seen anything remotely like it?  There are "shoot houses" were soldiers will clear a room with live rounds.  There are even training evolutions where Navy SEALs will use live ammo to clear a room with one of their comrades playing "hostage".  Why would this be necessary?  Because you have to trust the men you go into combat with.  If you watch Act of Valor, there are a few scenes where they use live, honest to God, REAL bullets, with the SEALs and camera crew just feet away.  They do this because they train on it like they're fighting an actual war. 

Unfortunately one of the greatest divides in how the military is viewed by the civilian world has to do with just these sorts of training.  It is not understood by most why you will do a gazillion pushups with a Drill Sergeant screaming in your ear if you "flag" you buddy.  People don't get why NCOs will absolutely lose it if one of their soldiers falls asleep on guard.  People will not understand why things like the Goat Lab, and SERE School, just to name a few are so necessary.  When you look at the things you have to go through to get a Ranger tab, a lot of people ask why all this pain for one dinky little piece of cloth, and utterly miss the point of why this training is the way it is. 

In war, when the bullets start flying, it's too late to learn those lessons you should have learned.  Not knowing something like how to stop a femoral artery from bleeding out, will cost someone their life.  Not knowing what live ammo coming at you feels like will cause someone to panic at exactly the wrong moment.  The training evolutions that American service members go through are often harder than the actual combat they face, and the results are one of the most lethally effective fighting forces in the world.  Unfortunately, you simply can not express this in any meaningful way to those who do not understand warfare, thus a lot of really important training opportunities are missed out on by the troops that really should have it, namely that private fresh out of Boot. 

With the looming sequestration, each service will have to ask themselves what training programs are vital and which can go by the wayside.  You can bet that TC3 will probably be one of those programs that is scaled back.  The Rodger Young range is probably another that will go, more out of political pressure, when some dumb kid stands up (and it has happened) someone will question the necessity, and just like that it will go away.  Live fire will be scaled back because there isn't enough money for ammo, so a lot of really good training troops might need won't be had.  My greatest fear is that the training budget may be cut back so much that the Airborne are doing "jumps" out of a deuce and a half.  That the Infantry are saying "bang bang" and attacking trees outside their motor pool because there isn't enough money in the budget for an FTX (Field Training Exercise).   Perhaps worst of all I fear we will go to war thinking our military is as capable as it is today, only to see our troops get slaughtered live on national TV because they have no idea how to fight an actual war. 


Well Seasoned Fool said...

You are on the money. Comparing my Army Basic and Engineer school, in the early sixties, to what my son experienced forty tears later, explained, to me,why we had so many casualties in Viet Nam. I was fortunate to do my service in Germany. He, a Medic, survived a tour in Kandahar, in part, because of the training and equipment.

Anonymous said...

Train for the worst ...
Hope for the best...