The Special Operations medics, officially known as Special Operations Medical Sergeants are an extremely valuable resource for the both the operational unit and the host nation’s military and civilian populace.
The popular depiction of a Special Operations trooper is that of a warrior diplomat. And no one epitomizes that better than the medics. In the Unconventional Warfare (UW) role, gaining the trust of the civilian populace is paramount.
The training is long and very difficult. The medic course MOS portion of the training pipeline takes about 50 weeks to complete. Medical sergeants specialize in trauma management, infectious diseases, cardiac life support and surgical procedures, with a basic understanding of veterinary and dental medicine. Both general health care and emergency health care are stressed in training.
Medical sergeants provide emergency, routine and long-term medical care for detachment members and associated allied members and host-nation personnel. They establish field medical facilities to support unconventional warfare operations, provide veterinary care, and prepare the medical portion of area studies, brief backs and operation plans and orders.
Besides attending the 250 days of advanced medical training, medics will spend two months on a trauma rotation in hospital emergency rooms. The medical-training phase includes a nationally accredited emergency medical technician paramedic program.
While medics in the conventional military are unarmed, the Special Operations medics are fully integrated members of the team and trained and carry the same weapons systems as the rest of the team. However, contrary to what the medics will tell their teammates, they’re not automatically the best shots on the team!
Besides being the best combat medics in the world, and they’re frequently as well-trained as many of the medical doctors in the Third World. Medics can set up a clinic in the middle of a village and teach the locals about taking care of common medical maladies and the prevention of diseases. They are also able to diagnose and treat many of these same diseases that wreck third world countries.
Medics frequently perform minor surgery, set broken bones, deliver babies, and help locals with pediatric care. They can perform minor dentistry are often the best source veterinarian care that the local populace will see in their lifetimes.
Their duty description is long and shows the level of training that is needed to pass the course is staggering:
- Provide initial medical screening and evaluation of allied and indigenous personnel
- Provide examination and care to detachment members
- Supervise medical care and treatment during missions
- Operate a combat laboratory and treat emergency and trauma patients
- Develop and provide medical intelligence as required
Serving as a member of a Special Operations unit is not always about combat — often, it involves working with the indigenous people as well as the host nation’s military forces to provide them the training and expertise to secure a future.
And many times, it will be the medic who plays a lead role in building rapport and trust between the indigenous population and U.S. forces. The caring of livestock, delivering babies, treating a host of diseases and sicknesses in the local population will go a long way in helping the locals get over their distrust of the US or coalition troops in an area.
When the United States was supporting several counter-narcotics operations in the Andean Ridge countries, bases were set up with host nation forces along with US Army Special Forces and Navy SEALs. Working in conjunction with DEA and other American government agencies, the special operations forces and host nations had the difficult job of trying to eradicate the illegal drug trade.
The local farmers and people looked upon the Americans as the enemy. As the people who were trying to stop them from putting food on their tables. As a side note, it is important to note that in many areas, the growing of the coca plant is not illegal. The locals have been growing it for centuries and there is a valid legal market for it as tea and medicine. The growing areas of the Chapare and Beni regions of Bolivia are about the size of New Jersey.
The narco-traffickers convinced the farmers that the “gringos” were here to starve them out. Often, there would be demonstrations outside the bases with Campesinos blocking the roads and throwing quarter sticks of dynamite. How did the US counter these? With the medics.
Politics would take a back seat to necessity. Medics would run a sick call and at times it would stretch far down the road. Women would walk for miles over mountain paths to have their children born in the “gringo hospital” on the base. Sick children and people injured during the logging season were frequent guests of the base.
These sick calls to the clinic were a great rapport building opportunity for the teams. Some of the people protesting the US presence a week before were back and asking for help treating their sick children and wives. The gringos weren’t the ogres they were made out to be after all and some people were so grateful, they named their children after the medics who delivered them.
Special Forces medics in the Chapare area of Bolivia alone were responsible for a tremendous amount of goodwill. The local counter-narcotic troops (UMOPAR) started having their families show up as well.
During the civil war in El Salvador, the border region with Honduras was at times a dangerous place. The mountainous area was frequently a place where the militaries of both countries were not particularly known for their respect for human rights. As usual, it was the farmers who were caught in the middle.
SOCOM tried to bolster the Honduran government’s image in this area by sending in Humanitarian Assistance Teams. US Army doctors, dentists, veterinarians along with Honduran medical teams and a bunch of Special Forces medics would visit the area where the locals had never seen any of the specialists mentioned above.
The Honduran faces would be put out front although the US would do the heavy lifting and use helicopter assets to airlift the teams to visit various locations in the country. Honduran infantry with a sprinkling of SF troops provided the security.
PSYOP teams dropped leaflets in the areas to tell the locals about the coming of the teams. On the last one, about 500-750 locals were expected. But the word had gotten out. Nearly 10,000 people showed up in this tiny village. What was supposed to be a one-day operation, turned into a 3-day marathon. The medics, as usual, did the heavy lifting. There were much more of them than doctors and they gained tremendous respect and rapport for our follow-on operations.
The lines were so long to be seen, the rest of the SF guys were pressed into service helping with inoculations, dentistry, and veterinary work. On-the-job training as a dentist…Just call me “Painless”, but that is a story for another time.
A successful mission of Special Operations doesn’t always come at the tip of the spear, although at times that is exactly what is needed. For those times when the opposite approach is needed, the medics can be the most valuable members of the team.
Photo courtesy of US Army