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JTF-Bravo Mobile Surgical Team practices setting up in limited visibility

By Staff Sgt. Austin M. May | Joint Task Force-Bravo Public Affairs | Oct. 24, 2007

SOTO CANO AIR BASE, Honduras — Shortly after 9 p.m. Oct. 18, in the middle of a seemingly deserted field shrouded in darkness, a once-vacant spot of grass became home to a fully-functioning operating room, buzzing with life.

Of course, anyone who happened to pass the spot where the OR stood probably wouldn't see a single thing.

Under the cover of night, using little more than flashlights and carefully coordinated teamwork, Joint Task Force-Bravo Medical Element's Mobile Surgical Team set up the OR in just over two hours.

Army Lt. Col. (Dr.) Robert Rush, MST commander, said the team set up in the dark because some missions call for setting up in adverse conditions with limited visibility. Learning to overcome that obstacle was the primary goal for the training.

"We set the MST up at to night to practice the setup in the dark," he said.

Mobile surgical teams conduct "far-forward surgery," emergency surgery near the front lines of battle, which is very important to the military, Colonel Rush said.

"It involves saving the 20 to 30 percent of the [servicemembers] who die of potentially correctable bleeding and airway problems very soon after injury," he explained.

The OR set-up was a practice exercise for the MST, but less than 12 hours later the large green tent in the middle of a field was the scene of real-world minor surgeries.

While MSTs are capable of and primarily used for performing life-saving surgery, Colonel Rush said the procedures done here, which were simple skin lesion removals, were "easy and elective.

"I do not want to risk doing non-emergent, complex surgeries in a limited environment," he explained. "I want my people to have confidence that surgery can be done in a tent."

Colonel Rush said he was pleased with the way things went in the field, adding "the mission went perfectly."

Air Force Tech. Sgt. Jennifer Parker, MEDEL logistics noncommissioned officer in charge and a member of the MST, said she felt the training was excellent preparation for a real-world situation.

"In my job at home, I would never get the opportunity to do anything like this," she said. "It's amazing how the medics can set up in field conditions in a matter of a couple hours and be ready to perform surgeries."

Sergeant Parker, who is deployed here from Langley Air Force Base, Va., said the team worked very well together in getting the tent ready for surgery.

Air Force Tech. Sgt. Bruce Graybill, MST noncommissioned officer in charge, said the training stemmed from a real-world mission where another MST encountered unforeseen difficulties setting up in darkness.

He said setting up the MST tent in the daylight takes anywhere from 90 to 120 minutes from the time the team arrives on the site to the time they are ready to receive patients.

"There isn't much difference time-wise between day and night," Sergeant Graybill, deployed to JTF-Bravo from the U.S. Air Force Academy in Colorado Springs, Colo., said. "This exercise was about proving to ourselves we could [set up] with limited visibility."

The sergeant also said by keeping the MST tent operating overnight, the team learned valuable lessons about generator oil and fuel consumption which will come in handy in the event of a real-world mission.

According to Colonel Rush, real-world MST missions occur about twice a year here. The next time a front-line operating room is needed, the JTF-Bravo MEDEL MST will be ready to meet that need, day or night.