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US troops trying to turn Afghan soldiers into medics

Combat medics and a physicians' assistant with Task Force Duke conduct medical training for Afghan National Army soldiers on Forward Operating Base Eagle, Thursday, Sept. 19, 2013.

ZABUL PROVINCE, Afghanistan — Afghan medics treating wounded comrades can call for help from international forces who can swoop down in a helicopter, pluck the casualty from the battlefield and deliver him to a state-of-the-art field hospital.

The problem, according to U.S. personnel working in southern Afghanistan’s Zabul province, is that the Afghans call for foreign aid for almost any kind of combat wound — even ones their own medics and doctors could easily treat.

They are supposed to call for international assistance only for “category A” patients — those who need immediate surgery to save life, limb or eyesight.

But on a recent night, for example, four Afghan soldiers were medically evacuated to a U.S. field hospital at Forward Operating Base Apache. According to the medical personnel who treated them, only one needed to be there.

The soldier had a compound fracture that required complicated surgery, but the others had concussions, cuts and a partial thumb amputation that could have been treated at a nearby Afghan field hospital, they said.

American personnel training Afghan infantrymen to become medics in Zabul province hope to give the locals the confidence to send casualties with minor wounds to Afghan medical facilities.

Fifteen months out from the date set for the last U.S. combat troops to leave Afghanistan, 28 Afghan infantrymen are at FOB Eagle, an Afghan base next door to Apache, learning skills that will turn them into medics. The Americans are also giving more basic medical training to other Afghan soldiers that will enable them to perform battlefield first aid.

“There’s a lot of hands-on” medical training, said Sgt. Warren Shipley, 28, of Chattanooga, Tenn., a medic with 3rd Brigade, 1st Infantry Division, or Task Force Duke. “We break down their gear piece by piece and make it as easy as possible.”

One of the main goals is to give the Afghans the confidence to treat minor wounds without calling for foreign help, Shipley said.

“The biggest thing that these guys are running into is having the confidence to treat casualties at the point of injury,” added Maj. Kendral Knight, 35, of Wilson, N.C., a physician with Task Force Duke.

“Literally everything for them is category A,” Shipley said. “We are trying to get them confident and competent to stand up on their own so they can assess a casualty, treat them and get them to the appropriate level of care once we are not there to support them.”

For example, a chest wound victim who isn’t in respiratory distress doesn’t need immediate surgery. The victim might have shrapnel injuries, but the lungs aren’t collapsed, Shipley said.

Likewise, minor shrapnel and gunshot wounds and any injury to the arms or legs where the medic can control the bleeding doesn’t require evacuation to a U.S. hospital, he said.

“They can handle these things with the ANA [Afghan National Army] physicians and surgeons and don’t need to medevac,” he said.

Having more Afghan medics might make a difference when the foreign troops pull out, U.S. trainers said.

Maj. Gordon Washington, 52, of Alamogordo, N.M., a physician’s assistant who leads the “Tiger Team” training the Afghans, said the ANA already has medics — trained in Kandahar — but needs more.

“They wanted us to be able to train regular infantry soldiers to be medics so they had more for the kandaks [battalions] as well as for the front lines on the battlefield,” he said.

The training in Zabul isn’t as advanced as the longer course U.S. medics get, but it’s aimed at giving the Afghan soldiers similar skills, he said.

A few of the top graduates of the course will get additional training and become instructors on subsequent courses with the idea that they will run the training by themselves once Americans leave, he said.

Others will return to their units, with a pay raise, and work in aid stations or as frontline medics, he said.

On Thursday, the would-be medics practiced responding under fire to a casualty and applying tourniquets to stop bleeding — simulated by fruit punch oozing out of a plastic bag. Then they had to drag their patient to cover and insert an intravenous needle to provide fluids before calling for help to transport the casualty to a medical facility.

One soldier undergoing training, Spc. Baqir, who, like many Afghans, goes by a single name, has seen his share of battlefield wounds, limbs blown off and eyes ripped out by improvised bombs.

Baqir said he wanted to train as a medic so he could help his friends next time any are injured.

“One hundred percent I’ll need it,” he said of the training.

Stars and Stripes reporter Joshua L. DeMotts contributed to this report.

robson.seth@stripes.com

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