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Division tests medical response

13 Mar 2004 | Cpl. Paula M. Fitzgerald

Navy Seaman Helen M. Gappa approached the scene she described as organized chaos. Marines were sprawled on the ground, crying out for help. 

From what she was told arriving on the scene, rocket-propelled grenades landed inside the 1st Marine Division's compound and multiple Marines were wounded.

Fortunately, the enemy assault and the injured Marines were staged.

The mock attack was part of an exercise here March 13 designed by 1st Marine Division medical personnel to test the current mass casualty evacuation plan, according to Navy Lt. Christina J. Gondusky, a surgeon assigned to Headquarters Battalion, 1st Marine Division.  The drill also gave corpsmen an opportunity to refresh their battlefield skills.

Gappa, a corpsman for more than two years, said she has participated in a number of these kinds of drills but they always get her blood pumping.

"The drills are like an awakening, especially out here since this could really happen," she explained. "Moving from patient to patient makes my adrenaline go through the roof. You don't really think about what you're doing because you just do it then move on."

Quick, concise reactions under stress were all part of the plan for the mass casualty drill.  Medical personnel assumed the responsibilities from the Army shortly after arriving and began devising plans for refining responses to emergencies.

"When we reviewed the mass casualty plan already in place on base, there were a few things we wanted to change," Gondusky said.

The 12-year Navy veteran and her 20-man team came up with a few initial ideas about how they wanted to respond to a mass casualty call.  They tested their ideas during the drill.

"The scenario was that three or four (rocket-propelled grenades) landed in the motor pool, and some of the individuals working there were injured," she said. "Once the incident was reported to us, our corpsmen were able to respond to the scene."

According to Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer Lee Spencer, independent duty corpsman, the definition of "mass casualty" varies.

"Some people might think it means 20 or 30 injured people, but it could also be one corpsman trying to deal with one patient with a large number of injuries," he said. "Basically, it's more casualties or injuries than you can physically handle at once."

Gondusky included a handful of Marines to play victims during the scenario. Ailments ranged from head injuries to fractured femurs.

"We had nine casualties during the drill," Spencer explained. "The biggest challenge was making sure we didn't forget someone. There's so much going on, and you could end up leaving someone behind."

The exercise wasn't without its stumbling blocks.  Spencer said the exercise was "canned" for a few reasons.

First, the corpsmen knew what to expect.  They were told when and where the attack would occur, number of casualties and types of injuries, even before the alarm sounded.

Mass casualties aren't anything new for the 23-year veteran.  His experience in combat situation dates back to 1983's Grenada invasion.  He knows most attacks come as a surprise.

"Everyone handles seeing that kind of stuff in their own way," he explained. "Unfortunately, many senior corpsmen have become accustomed to dealing with mass casualties. Some of the younger guys haven't, and it's hard to prepare them for it."

Another challenge facing the doctors and corpsmen was the exercise only called for a small portion of the forces here to respond.  In an actual situation, nearly all-hands would pitch in.

"Not as many people responded to this drill as would if it were real," Gondusky said. "We would have more transportation support and more people would come to help move patients. That was part of the artificiality of the exercise."

However, the exercise sharpened some of those life-saving skills Marines will come to rely upon.

"The corpsmen were still able to gain a lot of knowledge and learned quite a bit that they can use," Spencer said. "They'll be able to use that knowledge for future exercises, which will be designed to be more realistic."

The drill also gave Marines a chance to see corpsmen in action.  Watching the sailors perform their mission reinforced the trust Lance Cpl. Carolyn J. Decaprio, a role player, has in their ability to handle a mass casualty situation.

"The corpsmen showed confidence that they knew what they were doing," Decaprio said. "They reacted quickly to the injured troops, and they seemed concerned about our wellbeing. I've never feared about their ability to handle a situation like this."

Now that the exercise is over, the group will take everything it learned and use that information to enhance and refine the current plan to move a large number of injured troops.

"We're going to sit down and listen to everyone's perspective on how things went," Gondusky said. "I want to know what we need to change and what we did right so we can keep doing it. We're going to refine our plan and keep practicing until we get it right."