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Iraqi soldiers hone lifesaving medical skills in Al Anbar province

21 Mar 2006 | Staff Sgt. Jim Goodwin

Tucked neatly inside the Marines’ base here is an Iraqi Army camp, where Iraqi soldiers are training day and night to learn the skills they’ll need to eventually relieve coalition forces of security operations in Iraq.

The Iraqi soldiers here – part of the 2nd Brigade, 7th Iraqi Army Division – have spent months learning everything from basic marksmanship to administration and now, medical evacuation and treatment.

Most recently, the soldiers here received arguably some of the most crucial training they’ll need to survive in western Al Anbar province – how to deal with a “mass casualty” event.

A “mass casualty” is defined by U.S. military medical personnel as a catastrophic event that results in a number of casualties which could possibly tax a unit’s medical staff and equipment. Instead of treating casualties as they find them, first responders must pull their resources, prioritize casualties’ wounds and treat them accordingly to save as many lives as possible.

“They’re going to get injured, and the better they respond to it, the more people they’re going to save,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Krishnna J. Reyes, a 16-year Navy corpsman and member of the Military Transition Staff here.

MTTs are groups of coalition service members assigned to track and guide each Iraqi military unit’s transition to full control of security operation in Iraq.  Marines from Regimental Combat Team 7 have spent the past 50-plus days at Camp Yasser, the Iraqi unit’s camp here, evaluating and advising Iraqi soldiers.

The recent mass casualty drill was another building-block in the Iraqi’s progression towards independent operations, which MTT leadership here say will happen by year’s end.

U.S. Navy corpsmen from RCT-7, role-playing wounded casualties, offered a touch of realism during the exercise for the Iraqi soldiers. Sprawled in various rooms of an unlit, wooden hut, the sailors moaned in agony while wearing injury-bearing rubber prosthetics. The uniformed Iraqis were required to locate, prioritize and evacuate the casualties while under the watchful eye of the MTT staff and a U.S. Navy surgeon.

The training is considered crucial for troops here because a proper first response can mean the difference between life and death in a real mass casualty situation.

“Anyone can load a patient (on an ambulance) or put on a bandage when they have all the time in the world,” said Krishnna, a native of Cavite City, Philippines. “That’s why we train to do it quickly – because we won’t have time.”

The soldiers had to accomplish three tasks during the exercise – control the bleeding of patients, provide area security, and evacuate and treat the patients.

With the constant possibility troops can run into the threat of small arms fire and improvised explosive devices on Anbar’s dangerous roads, immediate, life-saving medical treatment is a must for the Iraqi Army.

To add to the scenario’s intensity, the wooden hut also contained mock unexploded ordnance, which meant the Iraqi soldiers had to quickly evacuate the patients before treating them and before sustaining more casualties from a possible secondary explosion.

Reyes said the drill was designed to be tough and keep the Iraqi soldiers under pressure, adding a touch of realism to what they’ll experience in the event of a real mass casualty event, whether an indirect fire attack on their base, an IED attack on a convoy, or any number of scenarios which could cause a high volume of casualties.

That was something Iraqi Army medic and Warrant Officer Ahmed Jubal was hoping to avoid when he and his cadre of soldiers arrived at the wooden structure littered with moaning, bleeding “casualties.”

“We learned today how to stop the bleeding, use IVs,” said Jubal through a translator. “I’m confident because we treat the injured like real. We take it serious.”

The training gave Iraqi soldiers a taste of the intensity and split-second decision making needed to quickly evacuate and assess casualties’ wounds, and gave MTT staff members an idea of the Iraqi soldiers’ response capabilities.

Within minutes of the mock casualties’ moaning in false pain, a blaring siren grew louder as Iraqi soldiers sped to the scene in their ambulance. Within minutes, the ambulance pulled in front of the building, Iraqi soldiers poured out of the vehicle, evacuated the casualties, and began the treatment process.

By the 30-minute mark, they had successfully evacuated and treated the mock casualties – who had simulated burns, fractures, and severe blood loss - with minimal assistance from the Navy medical staff.

“They did a remarkable job; even more remarkable when you consider there was (only) one medic and a bunch of Jundi (Iraqi soldiers) with limited medical training,” said U.S. Navy Cdr. Jay Erickson, RCT-7’s surgeon, who observed the drill and gave pointers through a translator to the only Iraqi medic on the scene.

“I was expecting them to take a step back and become overwhelmed,” said Reyes, who was impressed at just how well the Iraqi soldiers performed.

One issue the MTT members hoped to bring to light to Iraqi Army leadership through the scenario is the need for additional Iraqi medics for the battalion. During the exercise, only three of the Iraqi soldiers are bonafide, trained Iraqi military-certified medics.

Three medics for an entire unit is simply not enough, said Reyes.

That’s why plans are in the works for the MTT staff to begin a training program here that will qualify, per Iraqi Government standards, Iraqi soldiers to medics.  The plan is to provide 2nd Brigade and its three subordinate battalions throughout Al Anbar province with about 150 more medics within a year.

“To have one guy who can focus on one patient with a restricted airway, for example, would be golden,” said Erickson.

As part of the MTT staff here, Reyes has spent about two months advising soldiers of the 2nd Brigade in their daily training regimen, which includes everything from basic marksmanship to the decision-making processes they’ll need to function as a military headquarters element.  He also squeezes in medical training to the enlisted Iraqi soldiers, known as “Jundi” (pronounced “JUNE-dee”), during their training to familiarize them with medical equipment and combat life-saving techniques.

“They’re eager to learn,” said Reyes. “They want to perform, and they are.”

Following the exercise, the U.S. Navy medical staff gathered in another wooden hut to discuss the soldiers’ performance. Though the Iraqis did make mistakes, the Navy medical team and MTT staff were impressed with what they saw, especially considering only one of the Brigade’s three medics participated.

In contrast, Erickson used a U.S. military comparison to put the Iraqi soldiers’ performance in perspective for the handful of Navy corpsmen that role-played casualties and observed the drill.

“Guys, think about it – if that had been 30 Marines out there and just one of our corpsmen, how would you do?” asked Erickson of his corpsmen during the debrief.

One Navy corpsman was quick to respond – “Not that good!”

Eventually, the unit will be tasked with taking charge of three Iraqi Army infantry battalions and expected to operate independently later this year, according to U.S. military leadership here.

The mass casualty drill came on the heels of another recent Iraqi Army achievement in western Al Anbar province. Last week, about 100 Iraqi soldiers from the 2nd Brigade’s 2nd Battalion, completed their first, fully-independent counterinsurgency operation in Khaffajiyah – a village south of the town of Haqlaniyah along the Euphrates River.

The soldiers, who were accompanied by a handful of Marines in an advisory role only, patrolled through and cleared 3 km of the village.  The battalion of Iraqi troops are partnered with a Marine infantry battalion in the “Triad” area of Haditha, Haqliniyah and Barwanah.

Coalition Forces leadership deemed the operation as a milestone in the Iraqi Army’s progress.

“The soldiers were very happy … because after all the training we went through, we finally were going to get a chance to prove ourselves,” said Iraqi Army Sgt. Ahmad Mdtr of 2nd Bn. last week following the operation. “This is our one chance to life to prove that we can do our duty alone.”

3rd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment Combat Correspondent Cpl. Adam C. Schnell contributed to this article. Contact Staff Sgt. Goodwin at:  goodwinjm@gcemnf-wiraq.usmc.mil.