The Boston Bombings: Peculiar Benefits of the 9/11 Wars

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John Tlumacki / he Boston Globe via Getty Images

In the moments following the first of two blasts, pictured here, at the Boston Marathon on Monday, military training kicked in to help the wounded, at that moment and well into the future.

Within hours of the Boston Marathon bombing Monday, the Navy dispatched a three-member team from Newport, R.I., to try to help to track down the perpetrators. As word spread of multiple amputations among the victims, military doctors agreed that their skills at outfitting troops with prosthetics could help those maimed in Boston.

But beyond that obvious help, the military has learned lessons since 9/11 that are all too applicable in the wake of the Boston bombings.

“Because of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, there are many people in the country that are skilled in treating traumatic injuries like amputations and traumatic brain injuries,” Alex Horton, an Iraq-war veteran who now blogs for the VA, noted Tuesday. “Physicians have a larger breadth of knowledge about these injuries than a dozen years ago, and lessons learned from the wars undoubtedly saved many lives in operating rooms in and around Boston.”

In a post on the VA’s Vantage Point blog, Horton noted that many of those first on the scene to tend to the casualties had learned their skills in the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

“They have produced hundreds of thousands of men and women who respond to emergency situations quickly, effectively, and with tremendous compassion,” said Horton, a Battleland poster. “Monstrous acts like the marathon bombing are only effective when good people fail to respond in that manner.”

Roupen Bastajian, a 35-year-old former Marine now working as a Rhode Island state trooper, jumped into action just after finishing the race. “I started running toward the blast. And there were people all over the floor,” he told the Associated Press. “We started grabbing tourniquets and started tying legs. A lot of people amputated…at least 25 to 30 people have at least one leg missing, or an ankle missing, or two legs missing.”

Battleland asked Horton to expand on the benefits of the post-9/11 wars in Boston. “Over 10 years of war and countless deployments have led to a troubling reality: a great number of Iraq and Afghanistan veterans have experience with traumatic and complex wounds like we saw in the Boston Marathon bombings,” Horton said Tuesday evening.

He added:

Shrapnel wounds and amputations have been signature injuries from IED denotations overseas, and the results are always bloody, loud, confusing, and chaotic. Troops are hard-wired to anticipate secondary bombs, a common tactic used from Baghdad and Kabul to Boston. Troops quickly triage the wounded and apply life-saving aid using any means necessary–something veterans responded with very quickly following the bombing. Hard lessons learned on the battlefield led to tourniquets as the default response to traumatic amputation. Every member of my infantry unit carried a tourniquet and gauze and trained to self-apply in seconds if necessary.

That has led to a cadre of veterans primed to act when bad things happen. “Realistic training and real-world traumatic experiences in combat have imprinted veterans not only with the skills to treat the wounded, but with the composure necessary to achieve it,” Horton says. “If you dealt with gruesome injuries in combat and see them stateside, you’ll likely think, `I’ve been here before.’ And you’ll act.”

All of that may be true, but following recovery from physical wounds, Boston’s casualties will need counseling. The U.S. military has a role to play here, as well.

“The field of disaster psychiatry and disaster mental health has progressed immensely since 9/11,” says Elspeth “Cam” Ritchie, who before retiring as an Army colonel in 2010 spent her final years in uniform as the service’s top psychiatrist.

Instead of responding to such events with pro forma “critical event debriefings” – urging those affected to tell all they knew – the state of the art now involves “psychological first aid, immediate support and provision of information, reunion with family and friends, and calming of distress,” says Ritchie, a regular Battleland contributor.

There is also a growing awareness that the psychological impact of such an event “lasts for years,” with an accompanying need for counseling and treatment, Ritchie adds.

Dealing with stray IEDs at home will never be easy. But, in a strange way, having those skilled in handling such horrors far from home can help those caught in their crossfire here at home fare better than we might have expected.