FORT A.P. HILL, VA -- In a post-9/11 world, the threat of terrorism is just one a many scenarios where a large amount of people could be hurt at the same time. Terrorism, natural disasters, and countless other possibilities create the need for medical personal to treat a large amount of wounded at the same time.
The 22D Marine Expeditionary Unit's need for a such a capability was the reason for a recent exercise at Fort A.P. Hill, Va. Colored water replaced blood, trucks replaced medevac helicopters, and the "injured" were Marines and Sailors dressed in prosthetics made to look like actual wounds.
According to Petty Officer 1st Class Rick Vollbrecht, an Fleet Marine Force Corpsman assigned to the MEU Command Element, training of this type and this early in the MEU's pre-deployment training plan, or PTP, is new.
"When MEU corpsmen had gone through previous PTP courses provided by Special Operations Training Group, they have shown a deficiency in basic skills," said Vollbrecht, of Erie, PA. "It has been frequently requested by senior enlisted advisors that there be a course of this nature."
"It's a significant improvement to the training for MEU (Special Operations Capable) [qualifications]," said Lt. Cmdr. George Semple, 22d MEU surgeon. "It takes them to the next step after Field Medical School."
When conducting mass casualty operations, one of the most important steps is sorting the injured according to the immediacy of care needed. Upon reaching the site of the mass casualties, the corpsmen fand out into different quadrants, attending to the injured in their respective areas. After ensuring the patients have their ABCs taken care of - airway, bleeding and circulation - the corpsman make an initial judgment as to how fast the patient needs to be evacuated.
Those with relatively minor injuries can actually remain and may actually assist rescue workers with those who are more seriously injured.
Those who require the most immediate care are taken by litter bearers to triage, a designated area where doctors, corpsmen and even dentists and dental technicians help confirm the severity of the injury. Patients are lined up according to their injuries, worst to least, and evacuated back to ship, a field hospital, or wherever the best medical care available may be.
Making the distinction between who is worse off can be difficult, even in simulated casualties.
"You feel guilty a lot," said Hospitalman Arthur Perez, corpsman from Palm Bay, Florida assigned to MEU Service Support Group 22. "You have to get going. I'd hate to do on a real casualty."
Unlike individual injuries, where the corpsmen can focus their attention on one person, in a mass casualty operation the corpsman must work on a number of people. Coordination between all the parties involved is paramount.
"Make sure you have effective communication in the field," said Petty Officer Second Class David Springer, of Saugus, Mass., a corpsman with Battalion Landing Team 1st Bn., 6th Marines, the MEU's ground combat element. "You've got to look at the big picture."
Many moving parts have to mesh in order for an operation like this to work. Security, litter bearers, and corpsmen have to work in sync to pull off an operation like this smoothly. The BLT's Headquarters and Service Company provided security force for all the drills, and each MSE provided their own corpsmen litter bearers. When MSSG-22 performed their drills, BLT 1/6 provided the role-players and vice versa.
The two units trained under both day and night conditions. During the day, corpsmen, doctors and litter bearers sweated under the heat, carrying some injured several hundred yards. During the night, even with the aid of night vision and chemlights, identifying friend from potential threat became more difficult. The security team worked overtime, providing muscle for all the drills.
Training for the mass casualty scenarios isn't just a good idea, it's necessary practice for the MEU's Special Operations Capable (SOC) qualifications. Mass casualty evacuations, along with humanitarian assistance and noncombatant evacuations, are just some of the missions a MEU must be proficient at conducting in order to receive their SOC designation.
Though the corpsmen were eager to prove their mettle, they appreciated the opportunity to practice.
"This a shock trauma unit, which most of the corpsmen have never worked [in] before," said Chief Petty Officer Dulcie Davis, Leading Chief Officer for MSSG-22 and Allenton, Wisconsin native. "This gives us a chance to train on the equipment. I have faith in my corpsmen's skills, but this will give them the opportunity to train in the environment they'll be working in."
The training process is a crawl, walk, run situation. The chance to train now builds confidence for when it becomes the real deal.
"This was just a building block for this and other MEUs," said Vollbrecht. "Hopefully we can implement formal training during future PTPs for tactical medicine training. Better trained corpsmen means more lives saved."
The dedication of the corpsmen is without question.
"We took an oath when we became corpsmen to take care of someone's life, even at the expense of our own," said Lee. "It's much better to make mistakes in a controlled environment than to make them when real bullets are flying."
The 22d MEU consists of its Command Element, BLT 1/6, MSSG-22, and Marine Medium Helicopter Squadron 266 (Reinforced). It is scheduled to deploy early next year aboard the USS WASP, SHREVEPORT, and WHIDBEY ISLAND.
For more information on the organization, mission and status of the 22d MEU, visit the unit's website at www.22meu.usmc.mil.