By Army Staff Sgt. S. Patrick McCollum
National Guard Bureau
CAMP SANTIAGO, Puerto Rico (3/25/2009) â€“ The earthquake and tsunami that has struck here has left a streaming mass of civilians requiring medical attention, and the Arizona Air National Guard has flown in here to render assistance.
Or, at least, thatâ€™s the scenario.
In Exercise Vigilant Guard, Citizen-Airmen from the 161st Medical Group, Arizona National Guard, have set up an Expeditionary Medical System (EMEDS) to deal with the influx of wounded citizens struck by the scenarioâ€™s combination of an earthquake and tsunami hitting the island.
At the same time, the 161st also took the opportunity to recertify their knowledge of the EMEDS system via subject-matter experts in the Michigan National Guard.
â€œThis particular facility is a 10-bed hospital that provides surgical capability, critical care capability, chemical and bio capabilities, as well as routine medical care,â€ said Air Force Master Sgt. George Stevens, the NCO-in-charge of the Medical Readiness Training Site, Michigan Air National Guard, the unit that certified the training for the 161st. â€œAnd ancillary (services), meaning radiology, pharmacy, laboratory capabilities. Basically, itâ€™s a 10-bed equipped hospital.â€
According to participants, the EMEDS fills a vital role in the process of helping civilians after a disaster.
â€œItâ€™s already shown its worthiness in Kansas after a pretty bad F5 tornado took out an entire town and (Hurricane) Katrina,â€ said Col. Michael Ward, commander of the 161st. â€œA training set was originally deployed for Katrina to provide medical operations. From a homeland perspective, itâ€™s an important part of our mission as homeland defenders.â€
After a day of setting up the field hospital, the Guardmembers began fielding a steady flow of citizens affected by the simulated tsunami. Some walked into the hospital on their own with blood on their faces. Some were carried in on litters screaming in pain. All received the best care possible from the Guardmembers of the EMEDS.
EMEDS has been deployed to New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and even used in Iraq as a first-line field hospital. Without qualified doctors, however, the equipment would be useless. The 161st is staffed by such Citizen-Airmen as 2nd Lt. Tomas Chavez, a former Army medic who originally enlisted to deploy to Operation Desert Storm, but found himself late to the fight.
â€œI was 18, and went in,â€ said Chavez. â€œ I went to Basic, went to AIT, got to my unit, and the war ended.â€
After eight years as a medic, he left the Army and after a break in service joined the Air Force as a medic and flight surgeon candidate. While with the Air Force, he deployed to Iraq twice to work in a combat support hospital. Compared to what he encountered in Iraq, he said, the worst of this exercise didnâ€™t even compare. Chavez recalled being in an emergency room with more than 200 wounded personnel after insurgents bombed a marketplace and operating marathons that lasted up to 20 hours.
I think Iâ€™ve learned a lot (over) the years,â€ Chavez said. â€œIâ€™ve learned about taking my pulse first and relaxing and kind of doing well-orchestrated chaos when it hits the fan.â€
As Chavez and the other Guardmembers kept their cool under pressure, there was another group reviewing the organized chaos of EMEDS. Trauma surgeons of the Azerbaijani military were also on hand to see EMEDS in action and adapt it to their own military.
â€œThis is the first time Iâ€™ve traveled outside of Azerbaijan to participate in an event like this,â€ said Lt. Col. Shamsaddin Rzayev, chief of trauma surgery for central medical hospital of ministry of defense, Azerbaijan.
â€œThis is an EMEDS familiarization,â€ said Maj. Vanchai Vongchanyakul, escorting officer for the Azerbaijani soldiers and biomedical science officer with the 137th Medical Group, Oklahoma Air National Guard, who has a state partnership with the country.
â€œSo weâ€™ve invited them to come observe and participate in our EMEDS exercise,â€ he said.
Azerbaijan is attempting to bring its military up to the standard of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, and as such familiarize themselves with NATO equipment such as stretchers and the EMEDS package itself. As a strategic partner, Vongchanyakul said, Azerbaijanâ€™s knowledge of American medical practice will help the joint agenda.
â€œThey had 200 peacekeeping troops in Iraq with us,â€ Vongchanyakul said. â€œTherefore, when we interoperate, we would like to be able to, if you will, sing from the same page. They want to be NATO, so any way we can help them to be NATO is essential. This is one of the steps.â€
The stream of patients ebbed and flowed during the exercise. Some were treated and released and some, as Chavez knew from experience, just couldnâ€™t be saved. But in the hands of a newly certified National Guard medical unit with the latest technology, disaster victims stand a good chance.