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Battlefield Medicine: Combat Medics & Field Care

A U.S. Army specialist with 2nd Battalion, 1st Infantry Regiment, secures a litter after loading it in a military ambulance while competing for the Expert Field Medic Badge.

From open combat abroad to technically complex and dangerous training at home, all of our soldiers, sailors and marines put their lives on the line to complete important missions. When troops are injured in a combat zone it’s up to the specially trained medics that fight alongside them to save their lives. Today we’re looking over what decisions a combat medic has to make in the line of their duty, and how medical care in the field and backing up our troops is changing.

A Majority of Soldier Deaths Occur on the Battlefield

While US Military Field Hospitals (such as Combat Support Hospitals) can perform miracles for our troops and allies, most deaths occur before doctors can bring their skills to bear. Ninety percent of soldier deaths in combat occur before they can reach these bases, according to We Are the Mighty. When soldiers are wounded on the battlefield, it’s up to combat and field medics to access and treating battlefield injuries.

The Tactics of Treatment: Risking Two Lives

U.S. Air Force Pararescuemen with the 58th Rescue Squadron provide medical treatment in urban terrain training in exercise Angel Thunder.

Conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan have seen medics go from internationally protected by the Geneva Convention to being targets by insurgent and terrorist forces. Military “Docs” from US Army Combat Medics to “PJ” Pararescue Airmen are now armed and are not visibly marked as medical personnel. Now, whenever a field medic goes to provide aid, he must also make the decision whether he can provide aid under fire, or if it will increase the risk to himself (and therefore his patients) unless he engages the enemy first.

Tactical Combat Casualty Care

While a US Army Combat Medic has different manuals and equipment that a US Navy Corpsman, their treatment generally follows the same steps as part of Tactical Combat Casualty Care (TCCC):

  • Fight or Treat: The medic either returns fire or begins field care.
  • Treat Hemorrhaging: The biggest risk of death for any wounded soldier is blood loss through hemorrhaging.
  • Perform Assessment: Once immediate danger is over, the medic assesses the patient by checking for wounds and taking vitals.
  • Start Field Care: After diagnosis, the field medic treats and stabilizes the patient.
  • Ready for Evacuation: The medic readies the trooper for evacuation, while also making sure that ambulance or medevac is coming.

The Rising Need for Prolonged Field Care

U.S. Navy Hospital Corpsmen first responders take vital signs from an injured soldier of Ghazni PTR after a rollover in the Ghazni Province, Afghanistan.

But what happens when that medical evacuation is hours, or even days away? Prolonged Field Care is becoming a more common occurrence with increased use of Special Operation Forces (SOF), the increase in more mobile “expeditionary forces”, and a reduction in bases to support those expeditionary units. As the “Golden Hour” continues to expand with the changing doctrine, the needs of the field medic to be able to sustain treatment continues.