JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO, Texas -- Brooke Army Medical Center launched a new program Jan. 17 to help increase the readiness of enlisted health care specialists who serve within the organization. The 68W Utilization Program will allow medics to practice the skills they need to maintain their core competencies so they are ready if deployed downrange.

"The 68W's are a foundation group to start with then we will continue to work through our other enlisted series to make sure we are giving them the same exposure," said Col. Margaret Nava, BAMC chief nursing officer.

The program supports the new Army Medical Command Regulation 40-50, which outlines the core competencies Army Health Care Specialists are required to maintain.

"We looked at the things medics are currently allowed to do in the hospital; things they are not currently allowed to do, but should be allowed; and things they can't do because of state or federal regulations," Nava explained.

A 68W Competency Assessment Tool was developed and broken down to three categories of required competencies: skills medics gain through direct patient care, skills gained using Table VIII validation exercises at Camp Bullis, and skills gained using the simulation lab here.

During the initial phase of the program, which was named "Return to the Fight," parent unit leaders and individual 68W staff will be responsible for performing and validating all skills and clinical experience available within the unit.

"What we wanted to do is invigorate the parent unit to allow the medics to be part of the care team, pulling them into different patient scenarios they should be exposed to, letting them use the skills they should be allowed use," Nava said. "However, we realize that there are places within our organization where they may not have the exposure to do certain things."

During phase two, parent unit leaders will be informed of secondary sites that can be scheduled through the Department of Health Education when parent unit validation is not possible. This phase will begin in March.

In April the third phase will be begin using the Simulation Center and Semi-Annual Skills Validation to achieve the competencies that can't be done through direct patient care. The program should be fully operational by May 2017.

"It's not just about signing them off for a year in readiness, it's about making them part of the team in their parent unit," Nava said.

As an extra incentive, the medics will receive a different colored badge for each level of competency they achieve. Level one is a black badge, which signifies the new 68W possesses basic skills. Level two's silver badge shows the medic has demonstrated all the skills in category one, but not yet completed category three. If the medic achieves all their competencies, they will be called "Master Medics" and obtain a gold badge.

"The medic's competencies are first and foremost their responsibility, so they have to be an active player in this process," Nava said. "It's now a leader's responsibility to make sure the parent unit is being held accountable to give the medic the opportunity to achieve their competencies."

The first junior noncommissioned officer to receive their silver badge and the first senior NCO to receive their gold badge will be presented a commander's coin of excellence by the BAMC commanding general.

"I think this program will show the providers that we can be utilized in a much broader spectrum," said Staff Sgt. Alfredo Herrera Jr., NCO in charge of 2 East. "I believe that the best training is hands-on training. Learning from muscle memory is a lot better than learning from PowerPoint."

Jenedra Curry, a registered nurse on 2 East, believes the program will not only benefit the medics but also the unit to which they are assigned.

"This program reinforces the concept of teamwork and individualized patient care," Curry said. "The 68W will become proficient in identifying changes in patient clinical conditions, which also promotes patient safety. I see the 68W program making a difference because the 68W are part of the interdisciplinary care team."

Sgt. 1st Class Alexander Ratliff, NCOIC at the Moreno Clinic, believes it is very important that medics practice their skills while in a garrison environment. While in Iraq, Ratliff used the skills he learned during his training as a combat medic to save the life of a Soldier pinned under a vehicle.

"I just did it, it was like muscle memory," Ratliff said. "It was the repetition that I received during training that made what I did possible. The fact that I didn't freeze or I didn't even have to think about what I was doing came from the fact that it was drilled into me."

Maintaining skill level is just as important as initial training, Ratliff said. "[If a Soldier is deployed] there is a certain level of expectation when they arrive at their unit. Their Soldiers are relying on them. The expectation is there … the skill set needs to be there."

The 68W Utilization Program is a command priority for BAMC Commander Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Johnson and Command Sgt. Maj. Albert Crews.

"I'm concerned that when we send our medics downrange they are not ready to do their full scope of practice," the general said. "We expect them to be ready on a moment's notice to do their skillset when they are deployed. Why wouldn't we do the same while they are in garrison?"