SOF-ME Airmen keep steady hands amid chaos

WRIGHT-PATTERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Ohio -- Amid the chaos, in the middle of an impromptu medical tent, are two medical professionals and a casualty of war. Their movements calculated and language concise. Their temperament calm as they operate on their patient--his life determined by each decision made for him.

Earlier, these two special operations forces medical element Airmen from the 1st Special Operations Support Squadron, carried their medical litter onto a parked CV-22 Osprey. Their mission is to work simultaneously with CV-22 Osprey aircrew and Airmen with the 21st Special Tactics Squadron to provide medical support to a simulated casualty of war.

The simulated casualty of war is part of Olympus Archer, an exercise that concentrates on medical standard operating procedures and interoperability with air operations. The exercise allows SOF-MEs to practice their skills while in an unfamiliar environment, like the back of an Osprey.

The SOF-MEs, Capt. Aaron Thomas, a flight surgeon, and Capt. Casey Fox, a physician assistant, are highly-trained medical professionals who work in austere and dangerous locations. Their job is to keep someone alive long enough to get them to a hospital.

They expertly employ advanced trauma care by applying IVs, bandages, monitoring vitals and countless other medical tasks, in the back of a CV-22 Osprey. The provided medical care is subtle and nuanced.

The jarring movements of the CV-22 are not. It's loud, shaky and performing tight maneuvers.

"Treating a patient on a CV-22 is extremely difficult," Thomas said. "You're battling some low-light conditions. You're battling vibration. You're battling what the aircraft is doing and you can't hear the patient that well so you're really trying to assess them and rely on your training to make some pretty critical decisions in a short period of time without a whole lot of input from the patient."

Any diagnosis is done with immediacy under the red headlamp of the capable medical professionals. The SOF-ME Airmen stay level-headed and task-oriented as they run through their checklists. They are only interrupted as Capt. Heidi Shelstad, a SOF-ME Physician Assistant and also their evaluator, injects new information and changes the priority.

"As they're doing they're physical exam [I'm] telling them what they're finding," Shelstad said. "Are their vitals bad? Are they hypotensive? Are their vital signs suggestive of a head injury? We have very detailed scenarios that guide them through what they should be seeing and we give them live feedback about what's going on."

Within an hour, the CV-22 lands back at Wright-Patterson. The SOF-MEs rush the casualty from the Osprey into a nearby medical tent.

They continue to work as they receive live feedback.

"What really worked for the SOF-MEs was just working on communication and decision-making. That's a big part of medicine," Shelstad said. "We can practice every day but that decision making is hard to do until you get put in a position like this. This was great chance for all the medical people involved to make a lot of decisions, real-time, under a lot of pressure."

The SOF-MEs work through the crisis and remain calm.

Exercises like Olympus Archer secure the steady voices and the hands of these highly-capable SOF-MEs. When it gets chaotic and frenzied, they will be ready.