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Biv-Whacked

by Carole Bellacera

In the past forty-eight hours, I'd survived a fiery plane crash, dragged myself through knee-deep mud in the middle of a smoke-bombed obstacle course and had been lost in the wilderness with a sprained ankle.  Unusual?  No.  I was a medical technician trainee in the Air Force, and this was "bivouac."

When I arrived at the base camp about ten o'clock on a Wednesday morning in December, I was surprised to find barracks instead of tents.  Stepping inside to deposit my duffle bag, I saw a row of army cots that must've been salvaged from the Spanish Inquisition.  And nothing else but a cold concrete floor.  Not even a bathroom.  No electricity, no running water and...

"No heat?"  I said to another girl nearby.  "It's the dead of winter!  We'll freeze!" 

Just then, a masculine voice bawled from outside the door of the building.  "You ladies, high-tail it out here!  On the double!"

We had been summoned for the first major exercise.  The obstacle course.  The rules were simple.  Five trainees were assigned to a group where one would be the patient and four others would carry the litter. 

At the sharp report of a rifle, it began.

The first part wasn't too bad.  After all, how awful could it be to crawl through a field of mud, dragging a 170 lb. dead-weight body on a litter with imaginary bullets whizzing over your head?  (Okay, so they could have been real bullets.)  After wading through knee-deep muddy water, we came to a long pipe, about three feet in diameter.  Crawl through that with the litter?  Great.

The two men in my group took the front of the litter.  Another girl, Diane, shared the rear with me.  Her face was pale, her eyes dark with fear.  Good thing I didn't look like that, I thought.  Just as my head disappeared inside the steel pipe, an explosion erupted outside.  Diane screamed.  "Oh, God!  They're throwing bombs at us!"

She wasn't too far wrong.  Smoke bombs.  The air was thick with blackish-purple clouds and the stringent odor of sulfur.  Seconds later, another bomb erupted just feet away.  Immediately, my eyes watered.  Bone-wrenching coughs exploded from my lungs.

Finally, it was over.  Exhausted, I parked myself against a giant oak tree and fantasized about sinking into a hot bubble bath like Private Benjamin and then digging into a char-broiled sirloin and a big baked potato loaded with sour cream.

Instead, I had to settle for C-Rations.  Chicken noodle soup.  Unheated.  Wearily, I turned over the olive-drab can and read the date stamped on the bottom.  1944.  Somehow, I wasn't surprised.

***

At 2300 hours, out in the middle of a huge field, an old military plane would be set alight to simulate an air disaster.  We were herded onto a bus and driven to an old hangar where we received our last minute instructions. A man in green fatigues checked my name off a list and handed me a moulage, a hideous-looking plastic "injury."

"Fractured humerus," he barked, instructing me to strap it on my arm.  Bright person that I am, I figured out that made me a patient.

 "Go on out and find a spot on the ground.  And make your screams sound realistic."

I snickered under my breath.  Who did he think I was?  Julia Roberts?  Yet, when I stepped outside, a shiver rippled up my spine.  Through the dark night, I could see the flames blazing up from the skeletal remains of the plane, and already, the agonized screams of the "patients" punctured the winter silence.  The moan of a siren rose on the night air and gingerly, I stepped around the scattered survivors until I found a spot on the cold ground where I could settle down.

I realized that the medics were milling about and soon, I would be relegated to the "triage point," where a decision would be made about the severity of my injury and the order in which I'd be treated.

It took some time, but finally, I was deposited at the triage point, and there, I spent the rest of the exercise being politely, but firmly, neglected.  Not even a cast for my fractured humerus!

An hour later, we were all back in the hangar, waiting for the evaluation of our performance.  Conversation came to a stand-still when the training instructor sauntered in.

"Congratulations,"  he said, his eyes gleaming.  "You just killed seventy-six percent of the plane crash survivors."

And so we had to go through the entire thing again.  This time, seventy of the plane crash victims survived.  Of course, I'm sure it had absolutely nothing to do with the fact that I played the part of a medic this time around.

***

Somehow, I'd managed to make it through the survival exercise where they'd dropped me in the wilderness without food to wait for a "search party" to arrive.  As I shivered forlornly in my light fatigue jacket, I fantasized about my mother's home-cooking and sang Christmas carols to myself.

Now, the last and most important test loomed ahead.  The evaluation of our emergency care skills.  I felt a cold knot of fear.  A bad mistake here would mean extra months in training and (gasp!) another bivouac.

The test was set up like a relay race with ten stations each holding a "dummy" with a fake injury attached.  A training instructor stood at each station with a stop-watch and clipboard in hand, evaluating our treatment and the amount of time taken in giving it.  Our decisions had to be immediate and correct; otherwise, our patient would die.

Suddenly, I realized just how important it was to me to pass this test, how much I wanted to be a good medical technician.  Now was the time to prove that I could be.

The training instructor divided us into groups of three.  I found myself with Wayne, a nondescript young man, and Marilyn, a girl from Arkansas.  And what a team we turned out to be!

At the first station, under an instructor's sharp gaze, we dove into action.  Our patient was a snake-bite victim.  As Marilyn set about taking vital signs, I withdrew a small scalpel from my emergency kit and made an imaginary crosswise incision across the fang punctures, then Wayne removed the venom with a small suction cup.  We treated the patient for shock by elevating his feet and covering him with a blanket.

On and on it went, one patient after another, head injuries, broken limbs, severed arteries, skull fractures.  With every station, our confidence grew and we found ourselves working together as a team.  No disagreements, no fighting over who did what.  Our only concern was our patient.  We'd almost forgotten he wasn't real.

As we walked wearily away from the last station, I felt a glow of pride rise inside me.  I didn't need an instructor to tell me I'd done well.  I could feel it.  For the first time, the surrounding woods looked beautiful to me.  I even found myself looking forward to the cold C-rations I would have for dinner, my last bivouac meal.

Bivouac camp seemed so different now.  It wasn't that I'd grown to love the place; on the contrary, I couldn't wait to get back to civilization.  Still, something had changed.

I was no longer just a trainee.  In the three days on bivouac,  I had become a medic in the United States Air Force.


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