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Advanced field hospital put to test in Puerto Rico

Senior Airman Kara Nicholas and 2nd Lt. Tomas Chavez check the vital signs of an incoming patient during Exercise Vigilant Guard March 25 in Camp Santiago, Puerto Rico. Airman Nicholas is a medic, and Lieutenant Chavez is a flight surgeon candidate. Both are from the 161st Air Refueling Wing from the Arizona National Guard. (U.S. Army photo/Staff Sgt. S. Patrick McCollum)

Senior Airman Kara Nicholas and 2nd Lt. Tomas Chavez check the vital signs of an incoming patient during Exercise Vigilant Guard March 25 in Camp Santiago, Puerto Rico. Airman Nicholas is a medic, and Lieutenant Chavez is a flight surgeon candidate. Both are from the 161st Air Refueling Wing from the Arizona National Guard. (U.S. Army photo/Staff Sgt. S. Patrick McCollum)

CAMP SANTIAGO, Puerto Rico (AFNS) -- The earthquake and tsunami that struck here left a streaming mass of civilians requiring medical attention, and Arizona Air National Guard members flew here to render assistance.

Or, at least, that's the scenario.

In Exercise Vigilant Guard, Airmen from the 161st Medical Group of the Arizona National Guard set up an expeditionary medical system to deal with the influx of wounded citizens struck by the scenario's combination of an earthquake and tsunami hitting the island.

At the same time, the Airmen also took the opportunity to recertify their knowledge of the expeditionary medical system via subject-matter experts in the Michigan National Guard.

"This particular facility is a 10-bed hospital that provides surgical capability, critical care capability, chemical and bio capabilities, as well as routine medical care," said Master Sgt. George Stevens, the NCO in charge of the Medical Readiness Training Site. He is a member of the Michigan Air National Guard, the unit that certified the training for the 161st Medical Group. "And ancillary (services), meaning radiology, pharmacy, laboratory capabilities. Basically, it's a 10-bed equipped hospital."

According to participants, the expeditionary medical system fills a vital role in the process of helping civilians after a disaster.

"It's already shown its worthiness in Kansas after a pretty bad F5 tornado took out an entire town and (Hurricane) Katrina," said Col. Michael Ward, the 161st Medical Group commander. "A training set was originally deployed for Katrina to provide medical operations. From a homeland perspective, it's an important part of our mission as homeland defenders."

After a day of setting up the field hospital, the Guard members began fielding a steady flow of citizens affected by the simulated tsunami. Some walked into the hospital on their own with blood on their faces. Some were carried in on litters screaming in pain. All received the best care possible from the Guard members of the expeditionary medical system.

The expeditionary medical system has been deployed to New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina and even used in Iraq as a first-line field hospital. Without qualified doctors; however, the equipment would be useless. The 161st Medical Group is staffed by citizen Airmen like 2nd Lt. Tomas Chavez, a former Army medic who originally enlisted to deploy to Operation Desert Storm, but found himself late to the fight.

"I was 18 and went in," Lieutenant Chavez said. " I went to basic, went to (advanced training), got to my unit, and the war ended."

After eight years as a medic, he left the Army and after a break in service joined the Air Force as a medic and flight surgeon candidate. While with the Air Force, he deployed to Iraq twice to work in a combat support hospital. Compared to what he encountered in Iraq, he said, the worst of this exercise didn't even compare. Lieutenant Chavez recalled being in an emergency room with more than 200 wounded personnel after insurgents bombed a marketplace and operating marathons that lasted up to 20 hours.

I think I've learned a lot (over) the years," he said. "I've learned about taking my pulse first and relaxing and kind of doing well-orchestrated chaos when it hits the fan."

As Lieutenant Chavez and the other Guard members kept their cool under pressure, there was another group reviewing the organized chaos of expeditionary medical system. Trauma surgeons of the Azerbaijani military were also on hand to see the expeditionary medical system in action and adapt it to their own military.

"This is the first time I've traveled outside of Azerbaijan to participate in an event like this," said Lt. Col. Shamsaddin Rzayev, chief of trauma surgery for central medical hospital of ministry of defense of Azerbaijan.

"This is an expeditionary medical system familiarization," said Maj. Vanchai Vongchanyakul, an escorting officer for the Azerbaijani soldiers and biomedical science officer with the 137th Medical Group of the Oklahoma Air National Guard who has a state partnership with the country.

"So we've invited them to come observe and participate in our expeditionary medical system exercise," he said.

Azerbaijan is attempting to bring its military up to the standard of NATO, and as such familiarize themselves with NATO equipment such as stretchers and the expeditionary medical system package itself. As a strategic partner, Major Vongchanyakul said, Azerbaijan's knowledge of American medical practice will help the joint agenda.

"They had 200 peacekeeping troops in Iraq with us," Major Vongchanyakul said. "Therefore, when we interoperate, we would like to be able to, if you will, sing from the same page. They want to be NATO, so any way we can help them to be NATO is essential. This is one of the steps."

The stream of patients ebbed and flowed during the exercise. Some were treated and released and some, as Lieutenant Chavez knew from experience, just couldn't be saved. But in the hands of a newly certified National Guard medical unit with the latest technology, disaster victims stand a good chance.