Training Troops for the Gore of War

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U.S. Army personnel prepare to conduct a tube thoracostomy – intended to drain excess air and blood from the chest cavity – on a goat.

Louis H. Smith IV has been an Army combat medic for a decade, and currently is serving in Afghanistan as the medical officer for the 4th Squadron, 73rd Cavalry Regiment. He argues, in a recent post on Small Wars Journal, that soldiers need better medical training to save the lives of their buddies on the battlefield.

The best way to do that, he writes, is to train soldiers headed into combat on live animals before deployment:

We decided on live tissue training because nothing else can come close to replicating the experience of treating traumatic injuries.  It was important for us to choose a civilian medical education company that had a good reputation within the military community for providing a quality realistic product.  With the potential for negative reactions from certain advocacy groups it was equally important that we use a company that had a good track record for following all DoD and Department of the Army regulations regarding live tissue…

The use of an off post site came with the added benefit of ballistic wounding.  Ballistic wounding would allow the instructors to create wounds that closely resemble the blast injuries that the squadron would face in Afghanistan…

All live tissue models that were used were completely anesthetized for the duration of this training and euthanized in a humane manner upon completion…

He doesn’t identify the kinds of animals used (goats often are) or the company that trained his Army unit.

The “certain advocacy groups” he mentions, but doesn’t name, include People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals and the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which have fought the use of such animals in military medical training for years.

“The suggestion that shooting, cutting up and dismembering live animals improves the treatment of humans on the battlefield is preposterous and is not supported by science, common sense or ethics,” says PETA’s Justin Goodman. “Studies show that lifelike simulators better equip trainees to treat human traumatic injuries in terms of both skill acquisition and psychological preparedness.” Goodman recently co-wrote an article in Military Medicine that showed 22 of 28 NATO nations do not use animals in their military medical training.

In fact, there is a push in the military to use manikins and other simulators to reduce the need for animals. Last week, the Army paid $81,210 for nine manikins, including two “GSW” – gunshot wound – versions and two “blast” versions. The service also bought single manikins for training troops on “pelvis with GSW to groin,” “partial leg amputation (right)” and “partial leg amputation (left).”

But Smith insists nothing beats practicing on a living creature:

We have multiple documented incidents that clearly show that the live tissue training our paratroopers received prior to deployment to Afghanistan was instrumental in lives being saved on the battlefield…

Arguments can be made for or against the use of live tissue training for non-Medics. What cannot be argued is that every single one of the 46 traumatic injuries that the squadron had a hand in treating or evacuating during the first 115 days of the deployment was initially cared for by non-medics. Of those 46 casualties, one was the fourth quadruple amputee in the history of US Army Medicine to have survived his wounds.