JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON -- The Department of Combat Medic Training at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston is responsible for training the Army's 68-Whiskey Healthcare Specialists, more commonly referred to as combat medics.
Although the Army-specific course is taught through the Medical Education and Training Campus, the curriculum comes from the Army Medical Department Center and School.
Second in numbers only to the infantry, there are approximately 39,000 active duty, Reserve and National Guard Combat Medics in the Army today. About 6,800 Soldiers will cycle through the DCMT this year.
"Combat medics after graduating from this course will do everything from running morning sick call to treating the most severe battlefield injuries," said Lt. Col. Rob Hennessy, director of DCMT. "Our course provides medics the necessary skills required to save a life on the battlefield and assist a medical officer in caring for Soldiers within a unit."
Once the Soldier medics complete the course, many of them will be assigned to an infantry unit, which may already be deployed.
"If a casualty can make it alive from the battlefield to a combat support hospital, they have a 98 percent chance of survival," said Donald Parsons, deputy director of DCMT. "Combat medics play a key role in battlefield injury survival."
"Saving people's lives … you can't beat that," said Pfc. Andrew Hardaway, who is currently training to become a combat medic.
Fellow student Pvt. Jessica Elder agreed. "I choose to be a medic because I think the best job is saving people's lives. The Army always needs medics."
Elder said she would like to become a physician assistant and this course will help her progress in her career.
During the first seven weeks of the course, Soldiers learn to become emergency medical technicians. This is the same training a civilian would go through to become an EMT.
Before the student can move onto the next phase of the course, they must pass the National Registry EMT exam.
"Our pass rates [for the National Registry exam] are pretty phenomenal," Hennessy said.
About 85 percent pass the initial exam, the lieutenant colonel explained. The students get three attempts, after that the pass rate goes up to around 97 percent.
"The national average pass rate for civilians from 17 to 21 years old, which is the bulk of our students, is 64 percent."
The second part of the course concentrates on tactical combat casualty care.
During this phase, students receive a checklist of all the different skills they need to master.
"It gives them the step-by-step-by-step instructions of how to treat the patient," Parsons said. "The sheet tells them how to treat the injury and it gives them a timeframe to complete the treatment."
The students practice their skills on human patient simulators. These simulators cost about $50,000 each and can move their eyes, legs, talk, breathe and even bleed.
"The simulators replicate real battlefield injuries that the students wouldn't be exposed to otherwise. We can't get them all into a trauma room at Brooke Army Medical Center," Hennessy said.
The DCMT recently revamped the two training areas set up to emulate the environments Soldiers may encounter when they deploy. One of the areas resembles an Afghan village. The other is similar to the mountainous terrain in Afghanistan.
"The set designers for SeaWorld helped us design these training areas," said Hennessy.
"It's more realistic," said instructor Sgt. 1st Class Chimere Richardson. "It puts them in the frame of mind of what they are going to see on the battlefield. They come in here and actually get hands-on experience."
The room is dark and full of smoke, loud music is playing and strobe lights are flashing while the students are working on the human patient simulators strewn throughout the rooms. Intermittent gunfire rings through their ears.
"The simulators are automated. It gives the students a sense of working on a real person," said instructor Staff Sgt. Alex Jenssen.
Students must learn to complete a combat casualty assessment, how to apply a tourniquet, initiate a direct IV and dress the most severe battlefield wounds.
The medics also learn complex medical procedures such as how to perform an emergency cricothyroidotomy, which is cutting an airway into the patient's throat, as well as a needle chest decompression for a collapsed lung.
The Soldier medics practice the skill sets multiple times and then they are tested on each one. Testing is conducted on a one-to-one basis, one instructor per student.
"If they don't pass the first time, an instructor will train them up on the skill set and they will try again. They get three tries to perform the skill correctly," Parsons said.
The final two weeks of the course, the students go to a mock Forward Operating Base called "Courage" at JBSA-Camp Bullis.
"That's where they put everything together," Hennessy said. "They participate in mass casualty exercises to learn how to work as a team."
In order to graduate, the students must pass a graded trauma lane at JBSA-Camp Bullis. Each student must be able to assess and treat a severely wounded simulated casualty within a specified amount of time and do it correctly, Hennessy explained.
The students have three tries and if they don't pass, they can take the course one more time. The course currently has an 88 percent pass rate.
"It's easy to teach someone a skill, but it's harder to teach them to think," Hennessy said. "They need to learn not only how to do them, but when they need to be done."