FORT SAM HOUSTON, TX -- From surgical care to physical therapy to blood supplies, the military medical system is moving its assets closer to the front lines to be more responsive to patient needs and, when possible, to return wounded troops to duty faster.
At the same time, the military is boosting know-how about treating combat casualties so everyone on the battlefield, regardless of job specialty, knows the most basic steps to take to help save a life.
Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan represent the first time these concepts, which the Army started introducing about eight years ago, are being applied in combat.
Army Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman, commander of the U.S. Army Medical Department Center and School here, said the trend reflects research about injuries, particularly trauma injuries. "What we have found is that the sooner you get to people after they have been wounded, the better your chances of saving them," he said.
Weightman said that's particularly true of injuries involving extensive blood loss, "because that's what kills people on the battlefield if they don't die instantly," he said. "So the sooner we can get the medical people to them, the better the outcome."
Recognizing the importance of quick care for wounded troops, the Army started beefing up its training programs introducing a three-day combat lifesaver course taught to all soldiers in their units and creating a whole new job description for combat medics, who receive their training here, Weightman explained.
In addition, the Defense Medical Readiness Training Institute here prepares doctors, nurses, physician assistants and other medical service corps professionals from all military services for the rigors of combat and the challenges of providing patient care on the front lines.
But just as important as increasing expertise about combat lifesaving, Weightman said, is getting it as close as possible to the patient.
In response, each Army company typically includes four to five combat medics, who operate "right there where the action is happening," he said.
In addition, forward surgical teams, 20-person units that include three surgeons and an orthopedic surgeon are being assigned at the battalion or brigade level. Weightman said these teams moved alongside the combat forces during the early, "manuever" phase of operations in Iraq, cutting medical evacuations, when necessary, to less than 20 minutes.
Weightman said these teams offer not just trauma care, but also a full spectrum of services ranging from physical therapy to preventive medicine. "We've pushed a lot of resources down to the brigade level and the division level," he said. "So not only can we treat them far forward, we can prevent them from getting sick and needing to get evacuated."