By Leanne Thomas, Tripler Army Medical CenterSeptember 7, 2018
SCHOFIELD BARRACKS, Hawaii -- Staff Sgt. Gabriel Mejias is the noncommissioned officer in charge of TAMC's Neonatal Intensive Care Unit, but he is always a warfighter first. The U.S. Army combat medic proved just that when he was recently named the 25th Infantry Division's Jungle Operations Training Course (JOTC) distinguished honor graduate on Aug. 10.
"This was great training for me as a medic because I'm not used to doing the infantry tactics every day being in the hospital," explained Mejias. "So it was a great opportunity to get out there and learn from other MOS' (Military Occupation Specialties) who do this more often."
Mejias' accomplishment also caught the attention of TAMC leadership. Command Sgt. Maj. Luis Maldonado, TAMC's Troop Command said, "I have seen Staff Sgt. Mejias' dedication to the training and the mission. He earned the right among all the warfighters in his class to call himself the distinguished honor graduate, and he is a trusted SME (subject matter expert) in jungle warfare."
JOTC, or "Jungle School," is offered by the 25ID Lightning Academy to prepare Soldiers for combat operations in a jungle environment. The 20-day course tests students on jungle mobility training, waterborne operations, combat tracking, jungle tactics and situational training exercises at the squad and platoon levels.
Because of TAMC's geographic location, the hospital's Troop Command, a battalion-sized element, deploys Soldiers to support missions throughout the Pacific region where many nations have jungle environments. Earning special skill sets, such as the Army's Jungle Expert tab, allows medics at TAMC to become more agile, versatile, and lethal, ready to deploy in the Pacific or augment any unit around the world in support of the warfighter's readiness.
Maldonado thinks JOTC is helping medics to be better prepared for their mission, "We are training our medics today to deploy and fight tomorrow. By providing this skill set (jungle warfare training), we are able to train our line medics to be lethal in combat and fight alongside our brothers in combat arms."
As a combat medic, Mejias recognized the harsh terrain of the jungle presents unique challenges when it comes to saving lives on the battlefield, such as an inability to use an armored vehicle or land medical evacuation helicopters. Most often, a combat medic has only himself and the tools he carries available to perform a medical evacuation. A simple extraction can turn into life or death not only for the casualty but for the medic as well. Jungle warfare, with its rugged terrain, requires knowledge of specific techniques and tactics to do what all warfighters are professionally trained to do - shoot, move and communicate, and medics have one more, keep their patients alive.
"The jungle terrain changes the whole aspect of how we (Soldiers) operate," Mejias explained. "There are a lot of gulches and hills you have to get through, and some gulches that you have to rappel down with ropes. There's just no way you can walk down parts of the terrain, especially while carrying a 70- to 80-pound rucksack and weapons."
Mejias credits the invaluable experiences from other Army competitions, specifically earning his expert field medical badge and the TAMC 2018 NCO of the Year competition for his success at jungle school. Both competitions tested Mejias mentally and required him to think critically as well as adapt and be resilient.
Mejias pulled from those experiences and became just as confident in his warfighting skills as the combat arms Soldiers he trained alongside. However, it wasn't until the last day of jungle school that Mejias even thought about being recognized as the JOTC distinguished honor graduate.
"One of the instructors came up to me and told me that I'm in the running for 'honor grad' because I didn't have any negative actions against me, and I didn't 'No-Go' any of the events," Mejias explained. "I feel like I just got lucky, and I was at the right place at the right time, every time. I just did what I had to do when it came down to the last second."
Mejias is thankful to his wife for her support of him and his love of being an Army NCO. With her support, Mejias says even though she doesn't like when he is away, she understands, and that support helps him focus on the mission and be successful.
The recent distinguished honor graduate is taking his title seriously as he heads back to his normal job. "Being the distinguished 'honor grad,' I take a lot of honor and responsibility in that and know that now this is something that is expected for me to know and train others to do as well."
Courses such as the 25ID's Jungle School continue to enhance the readiness of TAMC Soldiers by ensuring they are prepared to deploy in any environment at a moment's notice in support of the world's premier combat force.