For Green Beret medics, it’s not always about treating life-threatening wounds on a blood-stained battlefield.
Sometimes it’s about caring for common injuries, such as a mild ankle sprain. Or medics may even be faced with helping an ailing village goat in a country where livestock are treated like family members.
For the past five years, a program at Colorado State University has helped provide additional training in veterinary medicine, sports medicine and other areas to medics from the U.S. Army’s 10th Special Forces Group (Airborne) in Colorado Springs. The 25th medic from Fort Carson completed the Medical Proficiency Training program this spring.
CSU is the only place in the country outside of level-one trauma centers providing this MPT curriculum, which serves as a continuing education or professional development program for Special Forces medics. It’s especially well-suited to medics in special operations forces who have trauma-based experience and are hoping to enhance and broaden their training with other skills. During the CSU program, medics spend two weeks at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital and two weeks alternating between the CSU health center and the Sports Medicine Center in the Department of Athletics.
Serving in the U.S. Army Special Forces is not just about combat — it regularly involves working with a host nation’s forces or indigenous people to reduce threats of insurgency and provide security and training. Sometimes the medic plays a lead role in building trust in a culture where people might be suspicious of the U.S. forces. Treating an agricultural community’s cow, for instance, can be a valuable icebreaker that builds confidence that the Americans are there to help.
“Sometimes you can come in and treat an important member of the village, and that important member may be livestock,” says Rory Travis, a former senior medic at Fort Carson. He helped launch the campus MPT program several years ago with Hank Gardner, director of CSU’s Office of Defense Engagement. “In some cases they prize livestock highly, and our medics are often the first line of rapport-building. Trust starts with rapport, and increased security comes with trust.”
“Rick,” the first medic to go through the CSU program in 2012, wants to use only his first name for security reasons because he’s still serving as a Green Beret. He says what he learned continues to pay off: Over the past three months in his current deployment overseas, he’s helped diagnose and treat some common sports injuries on his team.
Seeing treatment applied
“Although we are trained to diagnose and treat common musculoskeletal injuries, there was significant benefit to seeing their treatment applied in a professional and structured manner,” he says of his training in CSU’s athletics department. “I was able to take what I learned at CSU and implement it within my own team to ensure I was giving thorough and appropriate treatment for my teammates. My time at the veterinary school was equally beneficial. We receive a limited amount of veterinarian medicine, so gaining familiarity with simple husbandry and herd maintenance techniques better prepared me for the future.”
Rob Callan, a clinical sciences professor at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital who works with the medics, says that in addition to basic medical care for animals, he teaches them safe handling and restraint of livestock. For instance, the medics are taught how to make a cow lie down on the ground using a rope halter, since the Green Berets likely won’t have chutes or related equipment in the field.
“They come out of here with the knowledge and confidence to handle the animal and maybe help it,” Callan says, adding that the medics will often request training in specific areas. “But a lot of it is really based on what cases come into the hospital during those two weeks.”
Once Callan took a field call involving a cow that suffered a prolapsed uterus after giving birth, and he invited a medic and a CSU vet student to accompany him. Under Callan’s coaching, the two did all the work to re-insert the cow’s uterus.
“We appreciate how resourceful the medics are, and how excellent their medical skills are,” Callan says. “We build some really nice relationships with them.”
Marcia Stille, a veterinary technician who works closely with the medics, says they appreciate receiving materials she’s compiled for them over the years. That includes a formulary on veterinary drugs, dosages and withdrawal times, as well as recipes that might prove valuable in the field, such as directions for making isotonic saline solution when all you have is distilled water and table salt.
“I still get Christmas cards from one of them every year,” Stille says. “I cook lunch for them each day they’re here; it’s my little way of trying to pay them back for their service. And I learn as much from them as they do from us. If we can teach them a little bit about what we do, it’s a great honor for us.”
Travis agrees that having to make the best of a situation by improvising with things like a rope or distilled water is commonplace for Green Beret medics in the field, because rarely are there adequate medical facilities or technology available.
“I’ve actually delivered a couple of babies,” he says. “Sometimes when you can’t med-evac someone, you have to rely on the medical skills you have. The whole idea is to keep U.S. and indigenous forces in the fight, or keep them stabilized until you can get to a higher level of care.”
Terry DeZeeuw, CSU associate athletic director for sports performance and the medics’ primary contact in the athletics department, says Green Berets have to deal with some of the same types of injuries that a student-athlete might experience. Travis agrees, calling Special Forces members “tactical athletes. Only instead of shooting basketball hoops, we’re shooting bullets. The missions are physically demanding.”
“They see overuse injuries, and acute injuries from trauma,” DeZeeuw says, adding that at CSU the medics get training in everything from properly wrapping a shoulder to identifying and treating concussions. “We discuss prevention and diagnosis, deciding whether something is routine or an emergency. Is it something you can train through? When they’re redeployed, it’s about determining what will render a team member unable to continue with a mission.”
A new perspective
There are even interactions between the visiting medics and CSU student-athletes, often around shared values like dedication, discipline and teamwork.
“It gives you another level of appreciation,” DeZeeuw says. “Sometimes we think we have it hard, but these guys provide a whole new perspective on what’s difficult. We’ve embraced the opportunity to work with them, and it’s rewarding to contribute in a small way to what they’re doing. I think we may get more out of it than they do.”
The medics’ two weeks alternating between the athletics department and the student health center gives them knowledge about several different areas of human medicine, because the health center offers such a wide array of services, including dentistry and optometry.
“We have some of the best variety of any campus medical center,” says Bruce Smith, director of medical specialty services. “And if we have an interesting case — like the mumps, for instance — we’ll pull them in. It’s really neat, because the medics have a different perspective and have training in areas that we can’t even come close to. Sometimes they teach us a lot.”
Rick says the CSU experience provides the medics with a valuable combination of skills.
“Special operations medics receive medical training in different disciplines, but the medical proficiency training has always been geared towards illness or trauma medicine,” he explains. “The partnership with CSU affords our medics the opportunity to practice a variety of medicine, better preparing them for the future.”
“We’re not dentists, physical therapists, veterinarians or obstetricians, but we need to be able to do a little bit of all of that,” he says. “We’re fortunate to have this relationship, fortunate that CSU opened its doors to us. There are a lot of people at CSU who understand the need.”
“It is great to have this partnership,” said CSU’s Gardner. “I really appreciate how folks at Colorado State University have embraced this opportunity as part of fulfilling the service aspect of our land-grant mission. It is also gratifying how the Green Berets recognize the value CSU adds to the accomplishment of their global stability mission.”
“The staff of CSU has been incredibly gracious in welcoming our medics, and the opportunity has proven especially rewarding for both the university staff and the medics, as each has come to appreciate the unique attributes of the other,” said Col. Sean Keenan, command surgeon for Special Operations Command Europe and former 10th SFG(A) surgeon at Fort Carson. “This partnership can be displayed as a model for future training of medical professionals in the military.”