CAMP SHORABAK, AFGHANISTAN — Amid the unrelenting sun and ubiquitous sand of Helmand province, U.S. and Afghan forces last week unpacked bandages, scalpels and operating tables — the makings of the region’s first mobile surgical unit for Afghan medics to treat their wounded soldiers.
Injured Afghan troops in southwestern areas have had access only to level 1 medical facilities, which provide basic first aid. As a level 2 facility, the mobile surgical unit will resemble a small hospital under a tent and provide treatment for life-threatening wounds.
Call it M*A*S*H 2.0.
“This is very important to their capability of medically treating their own injured, which they don’t have here in the southwest,” said Navy Capt. Joseph Kochan, an anesthesiologist and deputy command surgeon with NATO’s Training Mission-Afghanistan who helped set up the unit. “Now, we’re at least giving them the surgical stabilization capability so eventually, when they do develop a [level 3] facility in this area, they’ll be able to stabilize them here and move them on.”
As U.S. troops withdraw, they are racing to teach Afghan forces how to treat their critically wounded by setting up mobile hospitals.
Eight such units are scheduled to be set up across the country. Each will have a 22-member Afghan team comprising two trauma surgeons, an orthopedic surgeon and two anesthesiologists, as well as nurses, physician assistants and technicians. The teams will serve 90-day deployments.
The first mobile unit was set up last week in Helmand province, where Afghan troops are suffering heavy casualties from roadside bombs and insurgent attacks. The Afghan medical team will be trained by U.S. and British troops and will begin receiving patients in a few weeks.
The Afghan medics eventually will take charge of the facility and begin training other teams.
Injured Afghan troops now are taken to coalition medical facilities in Helmand, then moved to other coalition facilities miles away in Kandahar or Kabul, the nation’s capital.
Medical evacuations usually are conducted by helicopters or small planes, but Afghanistan’s embryonic air force won’t be able to perform such tasks for years.
“Their only other option right now is the back of a Ford Ranger pickup truck and giddyap across the desert until they get to something that resembles a military medical facility,” said Marine Maj. Gen. Charles Gurganus, who recently finished his tour as commanding general of forces in southwestern Afghanistan.
Most coalition combat troops are scheduled to leave the country by the end of next year, which means Afghan medics will need to develop skills quickly.
“It’s a real necessity for the Afghans,” said Lt. Noor Ahmad, an Afghan National Army medical officer who is helping set up the first unit.
Casualties for Afghan troops are more than double those for coalition forces. Most are blast injuries from roadside bombs, wounds to arms and legs, and blunt trauma to the chest and abdomen, Capt. Kochan said.
Complicating the medical training effort: Most Afghan troops cannot read or write English, let alone their own language. Also, most Afghans prefer to learn how to fight, not treat the wounded, and prefer to rely on coalition medical expertise.
“The majority of them automatically go into panic mode. But that’s what we’re there for,” said Petty Officer 3rd Class Donald Luanglath, a Navy corpsman. “You have to say, ‘Hey, it’s OK, it’s OK. He’s still breathing. Remember your basic steps. It’s going to be all right.’”
Also making medical training more difficult is the reality that most Afghan doctors and others with medical knowledge are loath to go to dangerous and remote areas, such as southwestern Afghanistan. Afghan troops from outside of the region are not told that they will deploy to the southwest until after they are en route.
But coalition troops are trying to emphasize that this fighting season is the last opportunity the Afghans will have to learn these skills before standing on their own. The level of U.S. forces, currently about 66,000, is expected to be reduced by roughly half by February.