FORT MCCOY, Wis. -- Spc. Alexandra Vanoverbeke spent her 24th birthday with her hands covered in blood. The smoke of birthday candles was far from her mind as she peered through thick smoke rising from a nearby vehicle explosion.

"Ricky! Ricky, can you hear me!?" she shouted into the dense scene in front of her.

Luckily, Ricky wasn't real. He was a life-like dummy used for training. For Vanoverbeke, a U.S. Army Reserve Soldier with the 13th Psychological Operations Battalion, from Arden Hills, Minnesota, it was her first time participating in a combat lifesaver course, also known as CLS.

Vanoverbeke tightened the straps on her vest, while her squad reviewed the details of needle-chest decompression behind her.

"It's something that everyone should be trained on to be a combat lifesaver, just in case that emergency happens," she said, adjusting her eye protection as she stepped outside.

The course spanned four days, with the first three days leading up to a final exercise. It threw Soldiers into an environment filled with explosive sounds, thick smoke, and the stress of trying to save a life.

"The real goal is for them to be able to learn the skills here, and keep on training, and then when they actually get to theater they will be able to use these skills and be effective," said Sgt. Christian Rennie, a combat medic with the 801st Engineer Construction Company, who was one of the trainers for the exercise.


He watched every move closely to ensure Soldiers didn't miss a step.

"You want to spot check them and make sure they are doing it correctly, that way they build the muscle memory," he said.

Vanoverbeke worked through the exercise quickly. She was one of the first Soldiers moving through the training lane, working with a team to transport casualties out of harm's way and onto an ambulance. Soaking in every bit of information, she understands the importance of this training, she said.

"It's how to save a life in an emergency situation, regardless of whether it's combat or on the side of the road with a severe motor vehicle accident ... I think it gets people thinking, 'How can I help instead of watching an accident?'" she asked.

Just as a simulated explosion went off signaling the next group, Rennie said, "Hopefully if I ever run into those guys and there is a combat situation, they will be able to do the things that I taught them."

It's back to work for Rennie. For Vanoverbeke, she swapped a day at home opening presents with loved ones with tearing open gauze packages. Once the smoke cleared on her birthday, this will be a day she won't soon forget, she said.