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1st FSSG sailors fight to save lives in deadly Sunni Triangle

25 Aug 2004 | Lance Cpl. Samuel Bard Valliere

Picture grabbing hold of a young man’s hand as he fights to stay alive, while you reassure him that he will live to see his family again after shrapnel just tore into his body. Now imagine fighting just as hard as he is to keep that promise.

Navy doctors’, nurses’ and corpsmen’s lives have revolved around situations like this since they set up the 1st Force Service Support Group’s Surgical/Shock Trauma Platoon here in March 2004, to act as a bridge between combat and  follow-on care for many wounded troops in the Al Anbar Province.

When a service member is injured, one the first priorities is to get him or her to life-saving care. Oftentimes, the wounds sustained require immediate attention just to ensure he or she will survive a medevac to one of the Army’s large combat support hospitals located away from the embattled Sunni Triangle.

That is where the healing touch of the S/STP’s personnel comes in. The 60-person platoon, comprised of 38 corpsmen, eight doctors, eight nurses and six Marines, works to save lives by performing emergency operations ranging from stabilizing gunshot wounds and replacing spilt blood to massaging a stopped heart back to life.

The S/STP is comprised of doctors with various specialties, allowing the team to deal with almost any situation.

Basically, said Cmdr. Darin Garner, 37, a surgeon in the unit, if the wound is below the neck, one of the unit’s eight doctors probably specializes in it.

“If the injury is neurological or in the eye, we send them directly to the (combat support hospital),” he said.

No more than five minutes after the unit opened for business on March 23, 2004, the first patient was carried in, said Seaman Ramon Salinas, 23, a corpsman with the unit. Like all floods begin with a single drop, so too did the mission here.

The platoon has since treated more than 300 people with injuries sustained during firefights, explosions and non-combat related accidents.

When the sailors are done stabilizing a patient, they send him or her to one of two Army hospitals in Iraq, which provide more advanced care and are equipped to hold patients for a longer period of time. The ward tents at the S/STP are only able to hold up to 20 patients at a time for about 72-hours.

The platoon’s painstaking efficiency and care have helped it to earn a reputation among the front-line troops over the course of the deployment, said Petty Officer 2nd Class Jeremy Franco, 31, a surgical technician with the unit.

Even the 1st FSSG’s commanding general, Brig. Gen. Richard S. Kramlich, stopped by to pass word from the Marines of 2nd Battalion, 4th Marine Regiment, whose E Company has suffered more casualties than any other Marine unit in Iraq.

“Gen. Kramlich told us that 2/4 said if they could get over here alive, they know they’re going to make it,” said Franco, a native of El Paso, Texas.

An E Company Marine, recovering at the S/STP after an enemy mortar blasted shrapnel into his leg, echoed those sentiments.

“A lot of guys back home are still alive because these guys did a lot for them,” said Cpl. Robert J. Hernandez, 21, an infantryman from Dallas.

The desert duty here has been a learning experience for the unit’s sailors, many of whom have worked in military hospitals but have never seen so many traumatic cases.

“You see a lot of things a lot of the medical community doesn’t,” said Salinas, a Houston native.

That is precisely why many of these sailors made the decision to be a part of Navy medicine.

“The reason a lot of us go into this field is because you can see such a significant impact on an individual casualty’s life,” said Capt. H.R. Bohman, 54, a general surgeon with the unit from Gailsburg, Ill. “The sailors will feel the seven months out here added meaning to their lives.”

Last year, during the I Marine Expeditionary Force’s push through the country, the Navy medical system in Iraq was set up much differently. The sailors were forced to adjust to the mobile nature of the battlefield by having to constantly pack up and move toward the fighting.

This time, the 1st FSSG placed its surgical units in key, static locations, making it easier for mass amounts of injured troops to receive treatment.

Five similar units are spread throughout the Al Anbar Province. They vary in size and slightly in capabilities, but ensure life-saving care is available anywhere I MEF troops are located.

“We’ve centralized so patients are brought to us, as opposed to moving to where we think patients are going to be,” said Garner, a native of Cardiff-by-the-Sea, Calif.

Though well settled in here, the unit is mobile in nature and able to move at an hour’s notice to a different area of the country to support heavy, sustained combat operations for as long as is necessary, making it easier to get troops to immediate medical aid.

While the vast majority of the injuries are combat related, the sailors treat some walk-in patients also, said Garner. The platoon has dealt with appendectomies, heat strokes and heart attacks.

Insurgents and civilians injured during combat also get sent to the platoon for emergency care. Everything is done to stabilize them before they are transported to local hospitals, said Garner.

“We had this one Iraqi family that got caught in the crossfire of a firefight. It was literally two or three generations of this family,” said Franco, who said the team was able to save almost all of them.

Bringing somebody from the brink of death to give them another chance at life is the thread that holds the tight-knit platoon together, said Franco.

“You know that you helped save somebody’s life and helped them get home to their families,” said Seaman Ron Brizuela, 23, a corpsman from Austin, Texas.
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