Checks a wounded soldier’s pulse to find it’s faint // Determines that his breathing is shallow // Scans X-rays stored in his dog tag // All with the use of a PDA, only yards from the scene of combat.
USMC photo by Lance Cpl. Justin M. Mason
Soldiers injured during the march to Baghdad in the spring of 2003 were rushed to small tent hospitals behind the lines. Marvels of twenty-first century logistics, these mobile units each contained two operating tables and four beds equipped with ventilators in a compact 900-square-foot space, where surgeons were poised to stop the bleeding, wash out and pack wounds, and staple off injuries to vital organs.
Both innovations—moving surgical teams and facilities closer to the action—represent a radically new and effective approach. In 2004, an article in the New England Journal of Medicine described the battlefield changes and reported that mortality among U.S. combatants wounded in action had dropped to only 10%, down from the one in four who died from wounds in Vietnam and the 30% death rate during World War II.
Not that the Army’s forward surgical teams are solely responsible for the decrease. The urgency of a war effort provides particularly fertile ground for invention, and soldiers and Marines in Iraq and Afghanistan are benefiting from many technological and medical improvements—bullet- and shrapnel-stopping Kevlar vests and helmets; clotting agents carried by the troops to stop the hemorrhaging responsible for half of all battlefield deaths; and special vacuums that clear wounds and sharply cut infection rates. Their effectiveness gauged during the heat of battle, many of these innovations may soon move stateside.