I was sitting in the shade of a pomegranate tree in a remote valley in southern Afghanistan when I heard the pop. The sun was just coming up, and I could see a thin plume of smoke ascending from a nearby hilltop. The screams were shrill and full of fear.
By the time I reached the top of the hill, the screaming had stopped. A soldier appeared, his hands covered in blood. He looked stunned. On the other side of a small ridge, there was a shallow crater, and in the middle of it was my friend Eddie. All that remained of his right leg was several inches of shredded flesh and bone. “Doc,” he said. “Help.” My hands trembled as I unzipped my aid bag. I had done this once before. On a goat.
For years, People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals has spearheaded a campaign to end the military’s practice of using live animals to train medics. That effort gained traction in June when 71 members of Congress signed a letter urging the Defense Department to phase out the program. One of the sponsors was Rep. Joe Heck, Republican of Nevada, who, as an Army Reserve doctor, served in a hospital west of Baghdad in 2008. His sponsorship, along with the signatures of nine other veterans, gives the impression that even the military finds “live tissue” training cruel and unnecessary. Their proposed solution: “high-tech, cost-effective simulation.”
Is it cruel to cut, slice and stab an animal to death while it’s under anesthesia? Absolutely. Is it unnecessary? It depends. The letter points to a recent military study that concluded that “there is no objective benefit of animal training” as compared with high-tech simulators. But that study was conducted in a laboratory and the participants weren’t combat medics preparing to deploy to a war zone. They were airmen assigned to a medical center in Mississippi. So, yes, in that case, it was not necessary. But in my case, as someone who’d soon be responsible for the lives of 30 men operating in Kandahar, it was.
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I usually get asked the same question when I tell people I was a combat medic: Did I attend medical school? I did not. My transformation from pizza delivery guy to Army health care specialist occurred over about seven months. The medical training, which accounted for 16 weeks of that time, was a mix of classroom instruction and hands-on exercises in simulated combat environments where I practiced on mannequins.
My medic mission
That was in 2007. In 2008, I deployed to Baghdad with a hospital unit. In 2009, I returned to the States and began preparing to deploy again, this time to Afghanistan with the infantry. By then, I was confident in my skills as a medic, but not as a combat medic. There’s a difference. My mission would put me in life-or-death situations without support from the doctors and nurses I worked with in Iraq. And so two months before we shipped off, my unit sent me to the goat lab.
In the Army, the “goat lab” is what we call Brigade Combat Team Trauma Training, which is offered to front-line medical personnel preparing to deploy. Over several days, medics learn techniques for treating battlefield injuries. The final test puts the student in a dark room where, under blinding strobe lights, he is presented with an anesthetized goat. Usually, the instructor uses shears to amputate one of the goat’s legs and yells, “Go!”
Treating battlefield wounds on the battlefield is not easy. Take a leg that’s been amputated by a roadside bomb, for example: The mangled flesh makes it difficult to find the source of bleeding, the fat slithers away under your grip, the muscles tense up so you have to lean into the tourniquet as you twist to stanch the blood flow. That stuff can blindside someone unless he’s experienced it before.
For most combat medics, training on live animals is the only way they’ll experience that real blood, bone and tissue before they treat their first battlefield casualty. And of course it’s not just “Doc” who benefits from that training – it’s every member of the platoon. Countless times in the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, a combat platoon was pinned down in a firefight for hours. To deny their medic the best training is to deny all of them a better chance of making it out alive.
We weren’t in Afghanistan long before I treated my first set of human casualties: a pair of toddlers who had been struck by a roadside bomb. Over the next year, I treated many of the wounds I had encountered in the goat lab. By the time I reached the top of that hill and looked down at Eddie, who had just knelt on a land mine, I was confident in my abilities, but I had never treated a full leg amputation on a human. Now I had to do it in a minefield. It still amazes me that he survived. It was worth a goat. It was worth thousands.
The New York Times
Adam Linehan, a former United States Army medic, is a senior staff writer at Task and Purpose.