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Tough load to carry: Medical students experience servicemembers' burden

An Army Reserve soldier adjusts his equipment during a four-mile ruck march as part of the 2015 Combined TEC Best Warrior Competition at Fort McCoy, Wis., on April 28, 2015.

DEBRALEE BEST/U.S. ARMY

By MEG JONES | Milwaukee Journal Sentinel | Published: February 27, 2016

MILWAUKEE, Wis. (Tribune News Service) — Veronica Renov staggered under the weight, sweat popping out on her temples as she struggled to stand upright.

And she hadn't even put on the helmet yet.

Sgt. 1st Class Nate Marone, a member of a medical recruiting battalion in Milwaukee, had helped Renov get into a vest weighed down with full canteens, and then pull on his camouflage backpack, filled with a sleeping bag, wet and cold weather gear, ready-to-eat meals and some tools. Renov then stuck the helmet on her head and held a fake M-4 rifle made of rubber.

"Oh my God. Walk up a hill with this? My back actually hurts," said Renov, a third-year student at the Medical College of Wisconsin, weighing about 100 pounds more than before she pulled on the "battle rattle."

Many of the students will soon treat their own patients in private clinics and hospitals, perhaps unaware – at least at first – that the person on their exam table is a veteran. Which is why the Medical College of Wisconsin asked active military members, veterans and health care professionals who treat them to talk to the students.

Renov and 74 of her classmates – all second- and third-year medical students – had spent a couple of hours listening to speakers talk about specific health issues facing veterans. Among the most prevalent problems: musculoskeletal pain from wearing body armor for months in Iraq and Afghanistan, giving many post Sept. 11 veterans joints that look like they belong to middle-aged patients.

It's the first such training session on veterans health at the Medical College of Wisconsin and was suggested by a student as a way to challenge stereotypes about veterans that students may have, especially since many don't have any close family members who served in the military.

"You see before you a soldier, and I want you to look at them from head to toe," said Michael McBride, a psychiatrist at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center who served in Iraq and Afghanistan. "Light infantry is anything but light."

Among the health issues facing Iraq and Afghanistan veterans: hearing loss from explosions and heavy machinery, teeth grinding and sleep apnea from stress of living in a war zone, respiratory problems from breathing dust and sand, kidney stones from dehydration, and foot problems such as plantar fasciitis from carrying heavy military gear.

Jeffrey Whittle, a physician at the Milwaukee VA, told students that most veterans don't use VA health care – only 9.1 million are currently enrolled. Among them are veterans with service-connected disabilities and noncombat exposure such as radiation during World War II and Korea, Agent Orange in Vietnam, depleted uranium in burn pits during Operation Desert Storm, contaminated water at Camp Lejeune, and toxic-embedded fragments from IEDs in Iraq and Afghanistan.

"The reality is most of these students will not see patients at the VA, but they will see them and their families in private practice," said Leslie Ruffalo, assistant professor at the Medical College of Wisconsin.

Students were given tips to determine whether a patient has a possible military background. But Ruffalo told students that veterans are very diverse with a variety of experiences and outlooks, and she cautioned them about making assumptions.

"No one veteran is like another. Once you've met one veteran, you've met one veteran," said Ruffalo.

Helping them to better understand veterans meant putting on their equipment. Which is why several active-duty soldiers and veterans brought gear and opened up Meals Ready to Eat to sample.

Taking turns donning military gear, Jack Jorgenson and William Ouyang, both second-year medical students, were surprised at the weight.

"Just being able to put it on, just for two minutes, my neck hurt," said Jorgenson, of Milwaukee. "The soldiers talked about how after four hours just how much their backs hurt."

After Renov wiggled out of the 60-pound pack and pulled off the rest of the gear, she said: "I can't imagine wearing that every day. The lecture was definitely helpful but actually physically experiencing one tiny percent of what veterans go through was really helpful, too."

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