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Viper Pit puts combat lifesavers to the test

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Saving lives in the heat of battle demands informed, split-second decisions.

Training to be able to make those cool-headed choices while under fire takes grit, an array of skills and a unique training environment.

Welcome to the Viper Pit.

"It's all about stress innoculation," said Staff Sgt. John Lacroix, medical plans sergeant for the 421st Multifunctional Medical Battalion. Lacroix who helped create the Viper Pit training area in the 421st MMB motor pool on Wiesbaden Army Airfield, explained that until Soldiers face the stresses of actual combat, they can't be sure how they'll react when called upon to render medical assistance.

With the 421st MMB's unique training environment, service members not only learn how to apply critical lifesaving skills, but they also put those to the test in a highly stressful setting where the sights, sounds and smells of combat are simulated.

"Pretty much anyone can put on a tourniquet," he said, and learn other lifesaving skills, but applying those during a heated mission is another story. "Our biggest goal in this room is to provide every stressor possible."

Using burnt flesh and hair, mannequins, mock casualties, gallons of fake blood, the noise of combat, reduced vision and other factors meant to distract one from the mission at hand, trainers force students to learn how to develop ways to cope with their surroundings while focusing on doing whatever is necessary to save lives and limbs.

"I dealt with a lot of trauma in Iraq -- both military and civilian," said Lacroix. "I remember the first time I heard someone yell for a medic and feeling the shock of having to respond. I always thought we could have had better stress training.

"Tactical Combat Casualty Care really evolved from lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan," said Lacroix, explaining that with faster medical evacuations possible on the battlefield, medics and combat lifesavers need to know when and how to properly apply tourniquets and render other first aid.

"Our scenarios are 10 times more realistic than what was available in the past," Lacroix said, explaining that as of mid-May, he and his fellow instructors had seen 1,033 Soldiers complete the training. While his primary candidates have been members of units in the Wiesbaden footprint, he has also traveled to Hohenfels to provide the training and has taught German, Moldovan, Georgian and other NATO military forces.

"I think for USAREUR (U.S. Army Europe) specific we've barely scratched the surface. I think every Soldier should experience stress innoculation -- not necessarily the Viper Pit," he said, but some form of training that provides a more realistic combat lifesaving environment. "I want to build one of these at every garrison across the Army. Its value is really immeasurable. It can only be measured in the lives saved."

While most Soldiers were spending some well-deserved time off the weekend of May 11-13, Lacroix and Sgt. TJ Vallejos were dedicating 12-hour days to helping 19 German Bundeswehr Reservists, a member of the Polizei and two German infantry Soldiers refine their abilities to respond under stress in the Viper Pit.

"The trauma lane is the culminating event," Lacroix said, adding that the first time through, participants "are meant to fail. We go through multiple rotations with them getting better each time."

Describing how most candidates fail to respond correctly when faced with the realistic training scenario the first time -- some quickly exhibiting signs of shell shock -- it helps that they discuss what went wrong following an iteration and have many opportunities to take corrective action, he said. "We try to make each time through a learning experience."

"I would definitely say that at the end of the day on trauma days is when you feel most successful," Lacroix said, adding that testimonials from Soldiers returning from combat in Afghanistan have also been rewarding.

"I had a female sergeant back from Afghanistan who had dealt with a lot of trauma, and she attested to the value of this type of training," he said, adding that recent feedback from the German Soldiers was also extremely positive. "They're shocked by the realism, but they add that this is the most stressful and positive training they've ever had. They really appreciate it."

"My attitude has changed drastically," said German 1st Lt. Markus Mueller. "That was the absolute most brilliant thing I've ever been through."

Lacroix, who will soon move on to another assignment, said a similar training environment was created at the NATO School in Wildflecken modeled on the Viper Pit, but built to re-create the setting of a market in Afghanistan. Training together and to standards is a crucial element in the partnership between nations, he added. "They want to know how we do things and we want to know the same to ensure we meet the exact same standards."

"Partnerships are built from the ground level up," said Maj. James Hayes, 421st Multifunctional Medical Battalion executive officer, praising the importance of partner exchanges. "In my opinion we serve as that conduit in building partner capacity."

But the primary value of the joint training is lives saved, Hayes added. "You never know how many lives we've saved. We may even have saved one of our own through this engagement."

When the 421st Multifunctional Medical Battalion relocates to Baumholder this summer as part of ongoing transformation in U.S. Army Europe, the Viper Pit training will move on as well.

Article by Karl Weisel (USAG Wiesbaden)