Task Force Orion’s 27th Infantry Brigade Combat Team, New York Army National Guard, highlights an outstanding member: US Army Staff Sgt. Desirie Carson, a combat medic who is teaching the Armed Forces of Ukraine soldiers how to put on a tourniquet during an “all service member” medical training session in Grafenwoehr, Germany.
US soldiers are no strangers to learning essential skills such as applying tourniquets, opening someone’s airway, and recognizing the symptoms of a traumatic brain injury. However, for those in the Ukrainian armed forces, the instruction they receive could be the difference between life and death in the confrontation with Russia.
US troops have been delivering important medical lessons and combat casualty treatment to Ukrainians for almost a year at the Grafenwoehr Training Area in Germany. Even though it is not as renowned as training on weapon systems such as the Patriot missile system or combined arms tactics, medical instruction may have a more direct and immediate influence on the battlefield.
“Just knowing and keeping in the back of our minds that everything we were doing and saying would have that direct impact on their ability to save lives, and to save each other, and to prolong their lives during their fight for their country – it definitely is going to I think stick with us for the rest of our careers,” Sgt. Alexis Ballard, a combat medic, who helped start the medical training program in Germany, told CNN.
Capt. Christina Whitler and Ballard, both AMEDD (Army Medical Education Department) soldiers, were present at a range in May for Ukrainian training with M777 Howitzers. Wanting to help, Whitler communicated with a Ukrainian leader to discover what other assistance they might need.
The solution was obvious: Further medical education.
A significant portion of Ukraine’s current military consists of civilians without prior experience in either military or medical training.
Combat rescue and medical training are essential elements of military readiness. In a warzone, soldiers face a variety of hazards and medical emergencies. Without adequate rescue and medical training, the lives of friendly forces and civilians are at risk.
This training is even more important for Ukraine, which has been facing Russian aggression for over a year. So, the Ukrainian Army must be prepared for any eventuality and equipped with the necessary knowledge, skills, and supplies to respond effectively to various battlefield situations, including caring for wounded personnel or assisting civilians in need.
Having trained personnel on the ground capable of providing first-aid, conducting search & rescue operations, responding to chemical weapon attacks, decontaminating contaminated equipment or sites, and transporting casualties quickly can mean the difference between life and death in a warzone. Furthermore, training can ensure that responsible practices like minimal collateral damage are maintained during combat operations.
Ukrainian troops tremendously benefit from US support for receiving specialized skills related to rescue and medical care on the battlefield. Such assistance not only plays a vital role in ensuring the safety of soldiers but also helps protect civilian lives amid the ongoing conflict in eastern Ukraine.
“We have to have that trust between teams to make sure that they know our process, and even with the language barrier, that we are able to treat whatever casualty – whether Ukrainian, Romanian, American, etc.,” said US Army Sgt. Jong Han, a combat medic specialist in 1-16IN, 1/1ID. “We’re all able to do our job, get them treated, and get them evacuated out to the next level of care.”
Whitler stated that when they commenced the instructions, some Ukrainians had already been schooled by US personnel prior to that, while others were utterly inexperienced regarding the military “due to the current situation in Ukraine.”
The necessity of medical training for combat cannot be overstated; the Ukrainian military has experienced thousands of casualties since the Russian invasion started in February 2022. Moreover, there is no indication that the conflict will end soon, as the Russian Army attacks Ukrainian positions and bombing cities.
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Col. Marty O’Donnell, a US Army Europe and Africa spokesperson, said that the training they were providing was intended to “give the Ukrainian Armed Forces the means to protect themselves from the Russian onslaught and prevent possible loss of life.” According to O’Donnell, this venture is under the direction of the US European Command, the US Army Europe and Africa, and the Security Assistance Group-Ukraine.
The training the Ukrainians received was comparable to that of US soldiers. However, unlike the latter, these Ukrainians had just been in a combat zone and were preparing to return.
Whitler mentioned that Ukrainian troops usually referred to real-life cases from the conflict happening only a few miles away. They would inquire about the correct steps if a similar injury were reencountered. In certain situations, they wanted to know how to save their fellow combatant if they had been aware of the correct methods.
Whitler commented, “It was difficult to talk to them, yet we were able to give them some comfort in knowing they did all they could, and there was nothing more a surgeon could have done even if they were in the operating room.”
Though Whitler and Ballard have stepped away from providing the training, it has still evolved. McCarthy and Staff Sgt. Desirie Carson, two National Guard soldiers from New York, added that it now involves mannequin simulations, practicing how to handle mass casualty events, and treating burns and fractures.
According to Ballard, it was evident that many were aware that they would soon return to the situation they were trying to understand and potentially reencounter the same challenges.
At times, the Americans wanted to listen, and, as a form of reassurance, they told their Ukrainian counterparts that they had done an exceptional job and could not have done anything better.
Whitler remembered conversations with Ukrainian soldiers impacted by Russian shelling and displaying indications of traumatic brain damage, such as dizziness, headaches, and irritability. He could sense their displeasure but reassured them that their reactions were to be expected.
“I think we did provide a little bit of comfort in that way,” she said, “that they knew ‘I should be experiencing this, and hopefully it will go away.'”
Though the Americans and Ukrainians had varying backgrounds and were in different circumstances, the language barrier and their shared knowledge of returning to the battlefield soon did not impede them from finding those moments all soldiers share that transcends culture.
Ballard humorously remarked that even among medical personnel, the smoke break is a “universal” language among the military and that in order to have a small quantity of fun, they engage in activities such as swapping uniform patches, lighting up cigars during smoke breaks, and competing in training exercises.
These downtimes would usually lead to them instructing the Ukrainian personnel about the nasopharyngeal airway, a slender tube inserted through a patient’s nose to unblock their airway.
“We would ask for a volunteer, and, of course, one of the older gentlemen would throw up one of the younger gentlemen to go up,” Ballard said, smiling. Everyone would gather around as closely as they could and watch as they inserted the tube into the soldier’s nose.
“Hearing people’s reactions, it’s the exact same way that all the soldiers I’ve taught have reacted. But watching them do it was absolutely hilarious,” she said, “and was just one of those bonding moments to have with them I think is definitely going to stick with me.”
“Those moments made it all the more difficult to see them leave at the end of the training. Whitler and Ballard recalled a graduation ceremony for their Ukrainian partners to acknowledge all they’d learned and done. It was “very emotional,” Ballard said.
“They’re fighting for their lives,” Ballard said. “And they’re fighting for their home. And the absolute least we can do is try to help them.”
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