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Afghan National Army training combat medics

Army News Service

Release Date: 1/26/2004

By Maj. Richard C. Sater

POL-E-CHARKI, Afghanistan (Army News Service, Jan. 26, 2004) -- The Afghan National Army has begun training its own combat medics to provide baseline care for soldiers in the field through a collaborative effort with the U.S. Army.

About 80 medics have graduated so far, and the second class is due to complete the course this month. A third group will begin training in the spring, officials said.

The focus of U.S.-based ANA training is to nationalize all instruction as expeditiously as possible, and the medical team is far ahead of the power curve with its training initiative, officials said. A third U.S.-based training team may not even be necessary, allowing resources to be refocused on more pressing medical issues, officials added.

Under the supervision of the ANA surgeon general, Maj. Gen. Zia Yaftali, the program is transitioning into the first professional Military Occupational Skill, Advanced Individual Training program in the Afghan army.

U.S. Army Maj. Mike Bell, from the Army's Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine, Edgewood, Md., heads the 10-member Army medical training team that oversees the course. Although assigned to the Office of Military Cooperation-Afghanistan nearby in Kabul, the team lives and works at Pol-e-Charki with the Afghan army.

The Pol-e-Charki camp serves as the headquarters for the ANA's Central Corps. Thousands of recruits live and train there, and a select number of them will be certified as combat medics, the backbone of the ANA's company-level medical capability, officials said.

The pilot class was eight weeks and took place early last year, taught by American instructors with translators. The current class, which started training in late December 2003, breaks new ground because "we have Afghan Army doctors doing all the platform instruction for the first time," Bell says.

Afghan Army Col. Ahmadzoy Wali, chief of medical training at the Kabul Military Training Center, oversees the effort with intensive care and personal pride. "America provides the materials for training," he said through an interpreter. "With the assistance of the Americans, the course is going well."

An additional indicator of progress - and success - is the fact that the training is ethnically integrated.

"We're doing away with tribal distinctions," Bell says. "The ANA is a strong, national uniting force. Our class is a perfect example." Members of various ethnic groups work together in the classroom as they will in the field. "I've been really impressed with how eager the students are to learn. They work together. They help each other out."

In eight weeks, recruits learn a variety of essential skills, including trauma management, splints and bandaging, airway management, cardio-pulmonary resuscitation, intravenous fluid administration and more. A day of lecture is followed by one or two days of hands-on skill development.

An entire week is spent on preventive medicine, concentrating on personal hygiene, field waste management, and water testing. "It's not sexy," Bell admits, "but in terms of improving the health of the troops, it's probably the most important thing we teach." I

It also initiates a culture shift, Bell said, "a cadre of medics who understand that importance" in turn becomes an advocate of good hygiene at the unit level.

Wali recognizes its value as a force multiplier. "Good health is a priority in the military. Good health means good soldiers," he said. "That's the reason why soldiers must know prevention and treatment."

Some of the course's success results from the instructors' willingness to devise unique solutions to potential problems - such as the literacy rate among the recruits. No textbooks are used. "We show them. Then they have to repeat the process," says medical instructor Staff Sgt. Carl Petersen, deployed here from Winn Army Community Hospital, Fort Stewart, Ga.

"Explanation first. Then hands-on," Wali says. "And repetition to educate."

Most recruits respond well to this approach, Bell said.

The training has led to some friendly competition. The recruits scrutinize each other and their trainers as they illustrate the proper techniques. At the end of the class, examinations are show-and-tell rather than written; each recruit has to answer questions orally and then perform the required tasks flawlessly to pass each section. The real final exam is a full-scale field exercise that tests every skill and includes a litter-carry obstacle course.

With each completed class, "we'll deliver 70 to 80 medics to the ANA," Bell said. "We're also training a cadre of Afghan [military] doctors who'll be able to sustain this training in the future."

That sustainment is critical, according to Lt. Col. Greg Vrentas, from Fort Sam Houston, Texas. As Chief of Medical Plans and Operations for the ANA Plans and Design Team under OMC-A, he's the architect for the medical capability of the Afghan army.

"A soldier who knows he's going to be cared for is willing to engage an enemy," Vrentas said. Ideally, a wounded soldier will be treated on the battlefield and then evacuated to a proper facility. "We fix him and return him to duty. If we can accomplish that," he said, "we can sustain this army. That's what I see from my foxhole."

(Editor's note: U.S. Air Force Maj. Richard C. Sater works for Air Force Combined Forces Command-Afghanistan.)

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