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New aids for medics look to revolutionize combat training

At a Capitol Hill demonstration Tuesday of new combat trauma training devices, former Navy corpsman Greg Figueroa works on stopping the bleeding of a gaping wound.

WASHINGTON — For generations, the U.S. military has been using — and killing — live animals to teach medics how to treat battlefield wounds. Methods had barely improved since Vietnam War-era medics trained on fellow soldiers wearing fake rubber wounds.

On Tuesday, the newest generation of combat trauma training devices were displayed on Capitol Hill, and the results may soon mean the end to live animal deaths in the name of training.

Think lifelike mannequins that can breathe, speak, scream, moan, bleed, blink, sweat, drool, secrete mucus, froth at the mouth, expand or dilate their pupils, swell their tongues and airways, turn their lips blue, and offer trainees everything else from a carotid pulse and blood pressure to heart and bowel sounds to severed limbs.

They aren’t cheap; the least expensive model will cost taxpayers $53,000, and higher-end models are in the $70,000s. But experts say medic trainees are unlikely to find a more realistic way to train these days.

The devices are called “sim-mans.”

“You train as you fight,” Dr. Robert DeMuth, a physician and former Army major who served in the Iraq War, told Stars and Stripes. “This mannequin goes where you are. If you’re in the woods, or a desert, or a swamp or the snow, they bring him out to you. ‘Live-tissue training’ is done in a hospital with tile floor, surgical lights and a surgical-type environment. This guy comes to the trainee, so he’s getting to use his own equipment. It hones your medical skills.”

“Live-tissue training” is military slang for the use of live animals for medical training. Despite all the advances in medical technology, the Department of Defense still uses approximately 8,500 live pigs and goats each year in trauma training courses. The animals are anesthetized while procedures are performed on them, so they are incapable of reacting to a procedure. In some cases, the animals are first shot or stabbed, and trainees are then told to keep them alive as long as possible. At the end of a course, the animals are killed.

“A lot of times when I talk about live-tissue training, most citizens don’t know that goes on,” DeMuth said. “Now, we think it’s unnecessary because of this new technology.”

Statutory language was included in the 2013 Fiscal Year National Defense Authorization Act to require DOD to submit to Congress a plan “to refine and, when appropriate, transition to use of human-based training methods” within five years. The only catch: DOD was not explicitly required to end the practice, and Defense officials never committed to a time line to replace the use of animals with improved, humanlike devices.

Rep. Hank Johnson, D-Ga., a member of the House Armed Services Committee, has introduced a bill to close the loophole and end the practice of live animal use for military medical training. Johnson appeared at Tuesday’s Hill briefing to plug his bill, H.R. 3172 in the House, and S.B. 1550 in the Senate, sponsored by Sen. Ron Wyden, D-Ore.

“We have to look at morality,” Johnson said. “Wars are immoral, but they’re necessary and have to be fought, so we need to be practical about that. The use of animals is also immoral but necessary. However, we need to move away from that, and that’s what my legislation would do.”

Later, in a private interview, Johnson acknowledged his bill faces an uphill battle in the Republican-led House, where he said Speaker John Boehner, R-Ohio, has not committed to allow a floor vote on the bill.

“We’re building towards a point where this will become a bigger issue,” he said. “It’s going to take a groundswell, a public outcry.”

Tuesday’s briefing also included another new development in combat trauma training — a ‘cut-suit,’ which is a 30-pound, rubberlike vest that can be worn by a live person and allows trainees to practice procedures such as inserting chest tubes or an IV line, and to control hemorrhages, one of the leading causes of combat deaths. According to the manufacturer, cuts in the suit can be “welded” — repaired with a liquid rubber, as opposed to glued — a minimum of 50 times, and each simulator will come with four of these vests.

Actors played out an intense and often-graphic battlefield scene at the briefing. In the ornately-carpeted room in the Capitol Visitors Center, an actor dressed in full Marine gear and a ‘cut-suit’ simulated getting shot in the chest and thigh, and receiving emergency help from a battlefield medic. Later, demonstrators put the man on a stretcher and simulated a surgery-room procedure involving vital internal organs.

Jonny Wing, an actor who works for Strategic Operations, played the part of the Marine in the suit. Although not a member of the military, he said both his mother and father served, and that he feels an obligation to play the part faithfully. He estimates he’s done the demonstration hundreds of times.

Wing tried to join the Navy as a teenager but was disqualified because of an asthma problem.

“It’s a satisfying job at the end of the day. I feel like it serves a bigger purpose,” he said. “I get a feeling and respect for what the members of our military go through.”

rushing.jt@stripes.com
Twitter: @jtr1
 

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