To survive a tour in Iraq, everyone must be a medic


Matthew D. LaPlante | | Thursday, June 14, 2007

NATIONAL For wounded service members, some of the most important treatment - crucial enough to drastically increase the odds of survival, medical experts say - can come before they ever see a medic, corpsman, nurse or doctor.

And that's why, by the time a Utah-based company of Marine reservists deploys to one of Iraq's most dangerous provinces later this year, each of the unit's members will be certified in the basics of what the military calls "combat lifesaving."

"If we can teach them just a few simple steps, we can make sure that any one of these guys is able to help save a fellow Marine when the time comes," said Agustin Hernandez, a former Army medic who earlier this month helped train the 114 members of Charlie Company, of the 4th Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion.

More than 25,000 service members have been injured since the beginning of the war in Iraq, according to the Department of Defense. And military medical officials say many of those injuries likely would have led to death in previous wars.

Part of the reason that many more are surviving is a medical transportation system that can get wounded service members to a combat hospital - from virtually any place in Iraq - within 60 minutes. Doctors at the Air Force Theater Hospital in Balad, Iraq, say they can save most patients who they see within that "golden hour."

But keeping the wounded alive that long takes quick action - often by whomever is available to render aid.

Chris Schumacher, a Navy corpsman who deployed with Charlie Company during its first tour of duty in Iraq in 2003 and who recently returned from his second tour with a separate unit, is a firm believer in so-called "buddy aid."

"They need to update their medical skills as much as possible," said Schumacher, who treated several wounded comrades during his recent tour of duty. "That's what's going to save a life, right there. They have to be ready to watch each others' backs, to put on a tourniquet, battle dress a wound or put in an I.V."

The Charlie Company Marines have been doing just that, honing their triage skills on medical dummies, sticking each other with I.V. needles and repeating, over and over, a mantra that leaders hope will carry them through the chaos, confusion and anxiety of rendering medical aid after an attack: "Start the breathing. Stop the bleeding. Protect the wound. Treat for shock."

"Every Marine learns that ditty in basic training," said Samuel Carrasco, the Marine major charged with training Charlie Company for war. "If we can bring it back to that, and give them the tools to do what they need to do, we're going to save some lives."

When all is said and done, many Charlie Company members point out, Marines are better at making injuries than fixing them. And so Justin Scobel hopes he'll never have to use his newly acquired medical skills.

But, Scobel said, "I do feel confident, now, that I can do it."

And that makes Gary Stevens feel better about going back to one of the world's most dangerous places.

When Stevens deployed in 2003, just three members from each platoon in his company received combat lifesaving training.

"Now, everyone's getting the training, and that's good, because any one of us could go down," he said. "It could be me. It could be our medic. And anyone could take care of us - every single Marine."

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