FORT INDIANTOWN GAP, Pa. - All Army units need to stay ready and proficient in order to respond effectively and in a timely manner when the moment arrives. They train and comply with year-round requirements in order to be so, and the 1st Area Medical Laboratory is not the exception.
Under cold, humid and foggy March weather, Soldier-scientists from 1st AML completed their two-week field training exercise (FTX) at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania.
The members of 1st AML are Soldier-scientists not scientist-Soldiers. Their top priority is readiness just like every other Army unit. In addition to those types of requirements 1st AML is the sole deployable medical laboratory in the Army, but there is something else that sets them apart from most units, the Professional Filler System.
The PROFIS has been used for decades by the U.S. military to fill voids in personnel when a unit deploys on a combat or humanitarian mission. They are, most of the time, doctors assigned to either military hospital or research facilities who work directly, in this case, with 1st AML organic members at least two weeks per year.
Currently, PROFIS is transitioning to what is called Modified Table of Organization and Equipment (MTOE) Assigned Personnel, or MAP.
"Historically, you had PROFIS; someone who would work daily at a MEDCOM (U.S. Army Medical Command) facility like the U.S. Army Medical Research Institute of Infectious Diseases (USAMRIID) or Walter Reed Army Institute of Research (WRAIR), but is expected to cross-train with a deployable unit like ours for about 15 days a year," said Col. Clinton Murray, 1st AML's commander and a Lubbock, Texas native. "But if the unit had to go overseas, they would stop doing their job at their assigned place and go overseas with the unit."
Now with the MAP system, these individuals become an organic part of a deployable unit while maintaining their place of duty at a MEDCOM facility.
"When I was a PROFIS at USAMRIID, I was assigned to them, but my PROFIS unit was the 14th Combat Support Hospital in Fort Benning," said Geneva, Nebraska native Lt. Col. Jason DeBoer, executive officer for the 1st AML. "So whenever they needed me, I would just go to them. Now these medical professionals are actually assigned to the 1st AML with duty at USAMRIID, ICD (Institute of Chemical Defense) or any other research or medical facility."
But why have a Soldier assigned to a unit working at a different location, some might ask.
"It allows them to keep their professional skills up while also filling the role within MEDCOM," said DeBoer. "If we had a microbiologist or an infectious disease doctor in the 1st AML full-time, they wouldn't be able to keep their skills sharp."
Most of the standard operating procedures (SOPs) MAP use at their everyday place of duty do not necessarily translate to the field environment. This creates an ideal cross-training situation when they go back to work with their unit of assignment.
"I think the interaction is really good," said Sgt. Maj. Jesus Gonzalez, Chihuahua, Mexico native and the senior non-commissioned officer for 1st AML. "Having that additional [MAP] expertise within the lab gives the Soldiers a little bit more of the 'why', the 'what for' and the analytics of what they're doing day in and day out. We only get them a couple times a year so we really take advantage of these training opportunities."
DeBoer added they have an opportunity to learn a lot from the scientists, because it's not every day they get the chance to work with three or four "Ph.D.s" in the same tent.
In the same way, MAPs also learn from their lab coworkers.
"They definitely learn from each other," said DeBoer. "If you're a scientist assigned to USAMRIID, you don't normally get to do this (FTX). I was there [USAMRIID] for three years, went to the range one time, and never went on a field training exercise. Most of them [MAP] don't even see a Humvee until they come to train with us."
These medical professionals assigned to deployable units still have to maintain proficiency as Soldiers. To be more precise, MEDCOM Regulation 350-4 states that all PROFIS Soldiers are required to qualify with an individual weapon at least every three years.
"I would have no idea how to set up this lab without their help," said Jupiter, Florida native Maj. Sabrina McGraw, veterinary microbiologist for the 1st AML. "We have SOPs these guys practice all the time, but my SOPs at USAMRIID are different because we are a research organization and operate under FDA (Food and Drug Administration) development guidelines. While the 1st AML is an equally stringent lab, it's set up for diagnostics, with more of a focus on protections from unknowns in a field environment."
"It is so much easier with them [doctors] around," said Spc. Andrew McMullen, a North Aurora, Illinois native and lab tech for 1st AML. In his experience, the MAPs help them to be more organized by prioritizing the order they run analysis on the samples.
"Their practical knowledge and our academic knowledge mesh pretty well," added McGraw.
Recent surveys have shown that leaders from U.S. Army Forces Command (FORSCOM), MEDCOM, and the 1st AML are receptive to the change.
"I think what you have to ask is should the emphasis be on the FORSCOM unit that's going into the battlefield or should the emphasis be on the MEDCOM unit supporting them?" said Murray. "If you're shifting into the group that's going to the battlefield, then you're following the FORSCOM piece a little bit tighter. But, with that being said, if you get along, and you have a great working relationship, which we do, it doesn't matter which way the arrow points."