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Air Force surgeon general: 'We are ready'

WASHINGTON (AFPN) -- Improvements in the deployment process since the 1991 Gulf War have resulted in a more fit and healthy fighting force, the Air Force surgeon general told a House committee March 27.

"Our military now finds itself engaged in war on multiple fronts -- in fact, a greater percentage of our troops are deployed, in more locations, for longer periods of time, than at any time since the Vietnam War," Lt. Gen. (Dr.) George Peach Taylor Jr. told the House Armed Services subcommittee on total force. "But I assure you: We are ready for this."

Improvements have covered pre-deployment health to post-deployment screening and counseling, Taylor said.

"We believe in a life-cycle approach to health care that starts with accession and lasts as long as the member is in uniform, and beyond," he said.

Taylor told the panel that Air Force Medical Service airmen are also more prepared than ever.

"Training such as our advanced trauma training and our Readiness Skills Verification Program assure our wartime skills are current," Taylor said.

Taylor said that the move to expeditionary medicine enabled AFMS to send medical forces forward rapidly, both in the initial deployment of Operation Enduring Freedom and now Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"The capabilities we bring to the fight today provide troops a level of care that was unimaginable just 10 years ago -- capabilities that make us a lighter, smarter, faster ... medical service," Taylor said.

A key component of this change has resulted in preventive medicine teams arriving in deployed locations on the very first planes, Taylor said. These small teams provide vital food- and water-safety capability. They also begin collecting environmental and hazard data, work closely on tent siting, and provide basic medical care.

The surgical units, or Expeditionary Medical Support units called EMEDS, can be on the ground shortly thereafter - "perhaps within as little as three to five hours," Taylor said.

EMEDS are comprised of rapidly deployable medical teams that can range from large tented facilities with specialized services to five-person teams carrying backpacks. These five-person mobile field surgical teams travel with 70-pound backpacks which hold enough medical equipment to perform 10 life-saving surgeries anywhere, at anytime and under any conditions.

In six months supporting Operation Enduring Freedom, one field team performed 100 in-the-field surgeries; 39 were combat surgeries.

"When our sick or injured troops must be removed from the theater and transported to definitive care, we have a state-of-the-art aeromedical evacuation system," Taylor said.

Taylor described the newly created patient support pallets, which are rolled onto transport aircraft, unfolded, unpacked, and within minutes, convert that aircraft into an aeromedical evacuation platform.

He termed the pallets a "monumental advancement" from the Air Force's traditional use of dedicated platforms like the C-9 Nightingale, or extensive reconfigurations of other transport aircraft.

"This saves cargo space, but, more importantly, it saves lives," Taylor said.

Taylor singled out one other major advance: the ability to move large numbers of more critically injured patients.

He said that "our outstanding aeromedical evacuation teams" have been enhanced by the addition of critical care air transport teams, which attend to patients throughout some flights, providing life-saving, intensive care in the air.

In 2002, 1,352 patients were transported in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, of whom 128 were critically ill or injured.

"It is important to note that our new programs can be woven seamlessly into the joint medical capability," Taylor said.

He described an incident in Afghanistan where an Army Apache helicopter crashed and both pilots had massive facial and extremity fractures. Within 17 hours, Army and Air Force medics had delivered the to a military hospital in Europe for surgery.

"Together, the three medical services have built an interlocking system of care for every airman, soldier, sailor, Marine and Coast Guardsman.

While troops are in theater, their health surveillance continues, Taylor said. "Using automated systems, we have documented and centrally stored more than 11,600 deployed patient records since 9-11.

"Tools are now in place to collect relevant environmental health data and forward them for centralized analysis. This linkage between individual patient encounters and environmental data is critical to any future epidemiology studies," he said.

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