WESTHAMPTON BEACH, N.Y. – Simulated casualties were all around them. Twenty people lay dead or dying in the mass casualty exercise.
Walking wounded "victims" were also arriving, all in need of immediate care. Radios crackled with messages about patients, their locations and transport, and area security.
The Airmen had known this day was coming and would test their skills and fortitude in this culmination of their five-day training in mass casualty response at Gabreski Air National Guard Base June 11.
The training and exercise for 22 Airmen of the 106th Rescue Wing’s Medical Group focused less on traditional individual medical readiness and more on wing support in a deployed environment after a mass casualty incident, according to Lt. Col. Stephen Rush, the 106th Medical Group commander.
The focus was on triage - assessing and prioritizing required care and patient transport levels. The scenarios encompassed the many moving pieces involved in a multiple-victim event, Rush said.
Members practiced carrying stretchers, or litters, for transporting patients; radio communication with the medical treatment facility and working with security forces for the safety of patients and the Airmen providing care.
Identifying the dead and establishing mortuary affairs were exercise components as part of the effort to replicate the conditions of a real battlefield.
“There (are) so many aspects to this,” Rush said. “We want to be able to deploy as the Med Group with the wing as needed, and be able to handle any problem that faces us, and have rehearsed it many times.”
Rush, formerly a flight surgeon with the 106th Rescue Wing’s 103rd Rescue Squadron, is coauthoring the military’s new approach to mass casualty management, as part of the Department of Defense Joint Trauma System organization, or JTS.
JTS officials collect information on trauma treatment from military doctors around the world and then produce best practice guidance that helps save lives, according to the organization’s website.
The Airmen learned cutting-edge triage assessment techniques that were newer than those learned by even the most recent graduates of the Air Force medical technical school, according to Staff Sgt. Joseph Knoetgen, aerospace medical technician.
For Airman 1st Class Gariel Quintuna Calle, an aerospace medical technician who just completed his seven-month technical school, the exercise was his first time training with the wing and eye-opening.
”I learned a lot,” he said.
The exercise was planned by Maj. Mark Wilborn, medical administrator, and Capt. Rosemarie Tracy, chief nurse.
The team rehearsed and troubleshot situations to minimize challenges and maximize focus on the learning objectives.
Knoetgen sought feedback and guidance from Rush, Wilborn and Tracy, and credited their collaboration for the success of the training.
“They were confident in doing the job they had to do, and that is the most important because this is our foundation,” Knoetgen said.
“Step No. 1 is saving somebody off the battlefield. That’s what this was. Just basic assessment, saving them, getting them out of harm’s way and then knowing what to do next. And I think we did a good job at that,” he said.
The training was also designed to help medical Airmen cope with the stress of operating in a combat environment, Rush said.
As deployments became longer and more frequent, members are often unprepared for the emotional tolls of war, he explained.
Airman 1st Class Catalina Garcia Canas, an aerospace medical technician, said the better people are trained, the more likely they are to come through combat exposure without emotional consequences.