Military Roundup 25 May 2010
American exceptionalism on the battlefield

Saving our troops or saving animals

I know this is not going to sit well with some of you and I understand. I think it is important enough that I will ask you tolerance and if not your support, at least your acquiescence. We use animals to train Special Forces medics and many of our line combat medics and corpsmen. Let me say first of all that this is a horrifying thing, to ignore that or minimize it would be wrong. But it is less horrific than allowing our troops to die from wounds on the battle field because we were unwilling to train our medics as well as we could. Here is my Op-Ed in the Washington Times discussing this.

A choice between animal lives and human lives is pretty simple for most people, but there are some groups that would equate the two. Right now, there is an amendment to the Defense Appropriations Act that would cost the lives of some of our troops in order to save the lives of some animals. One of the groups pushing this agenda is the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, which posts this on its website:

"On Dec. 10, 2009, Rep. Bob Filner, California Democrat, chair of the House Committee on Veterans' Affairs, introduced H.R. 4269, the BEST Practices Act, which would phase in human-based training methods and replace the current use of live animals in military medical training courses."

The euphemistically named BEST Practices Act is anything but that. The best practice for a new combat medic is treating a living being. That is a harsh reality, but it is the truth. Currently, the military conducts what is called live-tissue training with goats and pigs. The animals are anesthetized and then given wounds the medics and doctors are likely to see in combat, and the medics perform the appropriate procedures to treat them. The animals are not a perfect analogue to a human casualty, but they provide one thing no simulation or dummy can: the visceral reaction each medic must face when a life is in danger.

Most medics would go to combat never having experienced treating a traumatic injury were it not for this program. The bill envisions expanded use of simulations to replace this training, but those can never re-create the reality of a wounded living creature. I experienced this firsthand while cross-training as a member of a Special Forces team. I had done a full emergency medical-technician course and all of the simulations with fake-wound makeup on people. When I was actually faced with a gunshot wound on a live animal, I was shaken deeply, and there was a hurdle I overcame in my mind. I have spoken to a number of Special Forces medics who credit this training with saving the lives of their teammates who were wounded in combat.

We also use vervet monkeys to conduct training on how to save victims of chemical attacks. The monkeys are given a nonlethal dose of a drug that mimics the symptoms of a chemical weapon and then are given appropriate treatment. A military expert in the field says:

"We have fortunately very few such casualties, meaning training doesn't support tutelage by experienced personnel. It must support getting it right the first time. In a real situation, medics must not "freeze." They must understand immediately what is needed, how to deliver, recognize how to proceed, and have confidence they are doing the right thing."

This is not callous disregard of animals. It is careful and thoughtful regard for the survivability of the men and women we send to war. We have made tremendous strides in body and vehicle armor, but the single factor most likely to save a wounded soldier is a well-trained, confident combat medic. We owe it to them to give them all the tools and training we can to help them save lives. I urge readers to contact their representatives in Congress and let them know that they oppose putting the lives of animals above those of our troops.

I had difficulty writing this because I was forced to confront the rationale behind my support for it. It is far from an easy choice and I don't believe it should be. But in the end I cannot equate the lives of animals with the lives of our warriors. An SF medic I know said "I'd rather see 1,000 goats die than one of our troops", that is a harsh idea to get your mind around but I agree with him. To clarify, the vervet monkeys do not die as they only get a drug that simulates the chem weapons symptoms.