Every U.S. Army Reserve unit is required to complete two weeks of annual training each year. Typically conducted at U.S. training facilities stateside, the opportunity to deploy to another country and train with other militaries isn't typical, however Soldiers of the 49th Medical Battalion are spending their annual training in Senegal, Africa in support of Exercise Western Accord 2014.
Exercise Western Accord 14 is a U.S. Africa Command-sponsored joint annual training event hosted by U.S. Army Africa and a joint training mission between the U.S., the Economic Community of West African States and partner nations. The exercise is designed to increase interoperability between military forces and ensure the common ability to conduct peace operations throughout western Africa.
Consisting of the 912th Forward Surgical Team from Cranston, Rhode Island and the 335th Area Support Medical Company from Puerto Rico, Lt. Col. Roberto Portela, emergency medical physician, 335th ASMC, said the battalion's mission is to provide medical support to units participating in Western Accord.
The 335th medical staff offer basic services like patient evaluations, checking vital signs, basic suturing of lacerations and intravenous medications and catheters for heat casualties. The clinic also has lab services and an x-ray machine.
While the basic medical services are for the U.S. service members, the medical staff is also available to assist with emergencies for those from other militaries.
"We provide services to U.S. Soldiers, host nation military and other participants in the exercise who may lose life, limb or eyesight," said Portela, a 20-year veteran.
The 335th ASMC handled the basic medical needs of those who fell ill or were injured however the 912th FST brought surgery-capabilities to the field.
"Our mission is to provide emergency surgical care to injured Soldiers," said Col. Timothy Counihan, 22-year veteran and senior surgeon of the 912th FST. "For this mission there were live-fire training ranges and because the location is so remote, they wanted to bring a surgical asset in case there was a training accident."
Although the unit is here to treat service members in need of medical assistance, the staff has spent the majority of their time training. The Soldiers have completed two mass casualty exercises which tested their own competence and capabilities as well as that of the clinic.
In addition to the mass casualty exercises, thanks to Counihan, Soldiers are privy to daily training in the Advanced Trauma Life Support course. A Massachusetts native, Counihan serves as a surgeon and teacher at his civilian job where he works in a teaching hospital.
Counihan said he is teaching the Soldiers in the 49th MB the same lessons he teaches to all of the residents and emergency room doctors where he works.
"Back home, only physicians are allowed to take the ATLS" he said. "I've learned over the years that Soldiers love the content so every chance I get I bring it along."
Portela and Counihan said the 49th MB's role in Western Accord 14 made the ideal training exercise for preparing their Soldiers in the event they have to deploy to a combat theater.
"It really brings us to the edge of what we'd be doing for a real mission in combat," said Counihan, whose company was the last FST in Iraq. "This is exactly what forward surgical teams do: take a piece of dirt, set up out of the blue and be able to operate, so the dust and dirt conditions here are realities of Iraq, Afghanistan and wherever we go."
Portela added, "They're getting real patient contact. These Soldiers are Reservists and most don't work a medical-related job in the civilian world. Out here, they're taking care of real patients, they're seeing illnesses and fevers, they're taking vital signs. More than training, it's real-life so it definitely prepares them for a combat deployment."