German army medics gear up for tough job in Afghanistan | World| Breakings news and perspectives from around the globe | DW | 22.06.2010
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German army medics gear up for tough job in Afghanistan

As German troops in Afghanistan face increasingly deadly attacks by militants, Deutsche Welle's Daniel Scheschkewitz visited a training session in Germany for army medics charged with saving lives on the front-line.

Soldiers during a simulated training at the ZEUS center in Germany

Soldiers during an excercise involving a mock attack on a German convoy

It's early morning near the town of Feldkirchen in Bavaria, southern Germany. A dozen soldiers and combat medics are gathered around a trainer in an inconspicuous shed on the grounds of the Bundeswehr or German armed forces' special training unit for army medics called ZEUS.

The soldiers are meant to practice reaction and strategy after a mock attack on a convoy - a situation that's part of daily life for their more than 4,000 counterparts serving in Afghanistan.

A trainer briefing German soldiers at the ZEUS center

The trainer briefs the troops on where to expect an attack

The trainer, Sergeant Major J (full name not given for security reasons) points to a model landscape to illustrate where a bomb attack could take place on the hilly and wooded training terrain and what options the soldiers have in such a situation.

"I'm simply assuming that we're going to come under fire," the trainer says.

The simulated combat situation is meant to allow the soldiers to train for the real thing under realistic conditions. The group discuss their options, weigh the pros and cons of different strategies and decide on their course of action. They're then divided into patrol units and sent out on the simulated mission.

Keeping cool when all hells breaks loose

The attackers strike just before a sharp bend in the road, detonating a so-called improvised explosive device (IED) just as a German convoy passes.

A Bundeswehr vehicle is hit, the convoy is separated and plumes of smoke obscure the scene.

The head of the mobile team of combat army medics has to assess the chaotic situation and give instructions on his wireless - where should the other vehicles be diverted? Are the passengers of the vehicles injured? What's the extent of the damage to the vehicle? Is there a threat of a further attack or can the convoy go on together?

Those questions can decide the fate and lives of the troops and the responses need to be trained and honed to perfection so that they work smoothly under extreme stress on the front-line.

The soldiers manage to bring things under control fairly quickly on the training terrain. The area is secured, the attacked vehicle, which has only been lightly damaged, is led back into the convoy.

Gap between training and reality

But the trainers leave no doubt that despite the seeming success of this mock exercise, there's a vast gulf between training and reality.

"We must know that when such a situation does arise, then things can really hit the roof and there will definitely be major chaos," Sergeant Major J said.

The head of training at ZEUS, Lieutenant Mario Weiss points out that things can get much worse.

Soldiers during simulated conflict situations at ZEUS

Combat medics need to react fast when troops are injured during an attack

"Of course it becomes increasingly difficult when troops are injured and the vehicle stalls."

That scenario is on the training schedule too. The nine-day course is divided into modules based on the level of difficulty of the tasks.

Another simulated exercise involves evacuating an injured soldier from the bombed vehicle and administering first aid.

In this particular session, it takes a tortuously long time before the soldiers reach their injured comrade because of a suspicious object that looks like a bomb near the roadside delaying the progress of the medics.

Soldier and medic at the same time

An army medical corps doctor, who has been watching the training, says that the combat medic often has to struggle with his twin roles as soldier and doctor in war situations.

"On the hand you have the helper syndrome and you want to rush to help. On the other hand, as a soldier you can't endanger the right military course of action through an impulsive move."

In the meantime, the army medics finally reach the bombed vehicle and retrieve their injured comrade.

Soldiers during simulated conflict situations at ZEUS

Combat medics are both soldiers and doctors

"We've all learned the specialized skills needed during civilian training. Just as the emergency medic is a trained doctor and the assistant has completed his civil exams," Weiss said. "But what we need is the ability to keep up tactically."

But keeping up with an enemy relying on deadly ambushing is proving to be increasingly tough in Afghanistan as the latest figures show.

Violence escalates in Afghanistan

Violence peaked sharply in Afghanistan in the first four months of this year, according to a new United Nations report. It said roadside bomb attacks rose by 94 percent, compared with the same period in 2009.

More worryingly, the report said that sophisticated suicide bombings had doubled from last year to roughly two per month.

"The shift to more complex suicide attacks demonstrates a growing capability of the local terrorist networks linked to al Qaeda," the report said. "The alarming trend of increased improvised explosive device incidents and the occurrence of complex suicide attacks persisted."

A German soldier in Afghanistan

German troops in Afghanistan are facing increasingly deadly attacks

On average, the report said, there were three suicide bombings a week, half of them in the country's volatile south.

In the latest incident, five German soldiers were injured last weekend in two separate blasts targeting Bundeswehr armored military vehicles.

On the front-line

For those who have experienced the conflict first-hand in Afghanistan, the training at the ZEUS institute is akin to investing in a kind of life insurance.

Manuel (full name not given for security reasons), a trained nurse and an army medic from the northern city of Bremen, is doing the training for the third time. The 28-year-old first worked as an army medic in Afghanistan in 2008 in the northern town of Faizabad at an army base.

"I did this training before I left for Afghanistan. It was really important and I needed it. There are lots of specialists here, they deal with the right topics. It's a must for every soldier who gets deployed," he said.

Manuel will leaving again for Afghanistan in a few weeks. But this time he'll be on the front-line as a combat medic.

"During my last Afghanistan deployment, I was busy in an army camp. But the next time when all hell breaks loose, I'll have to save my comrades' skin."

Author: Daniel Scheschkewitz (sp)
Editor: Rob Mudge

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