Combat medics maintain skills, share techniques

By Sgt. 1st Class Jimmy McGuire, State Public Affairs Office

Sometimes they are the soldiers hanging around the ambulance during annual training—dispensing Motrin and advice to drink water and change socks. Other times they are the ones stuffing gauze into a massive chest wound on the side of a road with chaos and bullets flying around them. Regardless of the scenario, Army combat medics prepare for the mundane and the mayhem.

Four Wyoming Army National Guard combat medics gathered for annual sustainment training at the 213th Regiment, Wyoming Regional Training Institute in Guernsey March 4-8 to polish their life-saving skills and learn new ones from one another.

Instructors Sgt. 1st Class Ethan Schanzenbach and Staff Sgt. Wayne Jones have a lot of experience in the business of saving soldier’s lives on the battlefield and know that a textbook approach to teaching the specialty is not the only way to do it.

“It’s nice to have a small class so we can customize it a little and not dwell on the things everyone knows how to do well,” Schanzenbach said. He is the RTI’s senior medical noncommissioned officer. “They know where they’re weak. I’m focused on saving lives, so I’m here to guide them and lend my experience and to help them overcome weaknesses.”

Spc. Tailor Johnson, assigned to Headquarters and Headquarters Battery, 115th Field Artillery Brigade, is grateful for her instructor’s approach. She and classmate Sgt. Matthew Stith will be deploying overseas later this year, and will be adding a week-long combat lifesaver course at Fort Sam Houston in Texas to their academic schedule soon.

“I’m learning a lot of modern battlefield medicine techniques and seeing the new tourniquets and blood management tools, and some things I haven’t worked on since school,” Johnson said. “There is a lot to know and learn.”

After evaluating and treating a mock casualty, Jones stressed that there are a lot of different ways to get to the same result. He encouraged the students to do whatever works for them, but ensure it works.

“That was how I do it—that’s my style. Come up with a style that works for you, but be methodical, because it’s all about getting that muscle memory,” he explained. “I’m not going to critique another medic’s work. And, for those of you deploying, I’m not gonna be there with you, but I’ll tell you, if they live, you did it right. And, if they died, you didn’t.”

The RTI’s sustainment classes have grown smaller over the years, and are mostly attended by medics assigned to units that don’t have trainers on staff, such as the Medical Detachment and the units that fall under 94th Troop Command. As well, the students have at least one more Military Occupational Specialty than that of being a combat medic or a 68W, its number-letter designation.

However, to keep their medic qualification current, they must certify annually, or lose the job title entirely.

Sgt. Jack Eden is assigned to the 197th Public Affairs Detachment as a journalist, and Staff Sgt. Shawn Todd recently became a full-time career recruiter with Recruiting and Retention Battalion. Both are passionate about their medical calling, and want to stay current, even if it isn’t their primary position in the Guard or their civilian workplace.

Eden talked about his introduction to the field. “I was in Kosovo and was right in front of a guy, with my camera in my hand, when he got hit in the head with a fist-sized rock,” Eden said. “I just stood there with the deer in the headlights look, not knowing what to do. There was a medic there and the guy was okay, but I knew right then I wanted to learn medical skills.”

Throughout the week, the students practiced evaluating and treating notional injuries on one another, drawn from the standard curriculum they would be tested on at the end of the week. The students asked Schanzenbach to perform one of the testable scenarios. He agreed, but said he wanted to play a video first. The video was recorded in Iraq by a soldier in the back of a Stryker armored vehicle being driven at high speed to a hospital. Combat medics were treating Schanzenbach for a gunshot wound through his neck.

“It did make an impression on me,” Eden said. “We hear a lot of war stories in Army training, but he was there, and those were his junior medics working on him. I wonder what he was like before that, because he is so no-nonsense and so focused.”

When Schanzenbach began acting out his scenario, which was read from the book by Johnson, it was in a very calm manner, quite unlike a nervous student. Schanzenbach took a moment to look at the whole scene. Then he confirmed with Johnson that he was seeing what the book said, and launched into a well-developed plan with little extra motion, something he urged the students to do when they were being evaluated.

“You don’t have to make a lot of extra motions and draw out procedures,” he told them. “For the most part, you are treating standard combat injuries, and even if it looks like they are dying in a grotesque military manner, it’s your job to stay focused and calm and save their life with just what is needed for the situation.”

Jones emphasized the importance of staying current and being prepared for any given situation, even situations that may be unique to National Guard members. He used the recent tornado in Alabama as an example of how Guard members are activated in the state when an emergency or disaster occurs.

“I’ll bet the governor of Alabama didn’t activate butchers, bakers and candlestick makers,” he said. “I’ll bet they activated engineers and medics.”

The RTI took over the sustainment course from Medic Det three years ago, but more changes are forthcoming as both Jones and Schanzenbach plan to retire this year. They will be missed.

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