| Cameron Stewart | September 02, 2008
AUSTRALIAN special forces patrols in Afghanistan are being accompanied by soldiers with paramedic-level medical training to reduce the danger of troops dying in remote areas before rescue helicopters can arrive.
Defence has taken the unusual step of disclosing details of the measures it is taking to save soldiers' lives after being criticised for shortcomings in its aerial medical evacuation capabilities in Afghanistan.
Last month, a botched helicopter rescue meant three wounded Diggers waited six hours on the battlefield before being taken to hospital. In July, a helicopter rescue for fatally wounded SAS signaller Sean McCarthy took two hours when it should have taken 20 minutes.
In response to questions from The Australian, Defence strongly defended the battlefield medical support it provides to its troops. Defence said that although all soldiers were trained in basic first aid, it was including highly specialised medical officers on the Afghanistan patrols.
"Like their basic first aid-trained comrades, a combat first aid-trained soldier provides initial treatment and assessment of a wounded soldier, but can also undertake more advanced life-saving procedures," a Defence spokeswoman said. "Special forces patrols (in Afghanistan) include a patrol first-aider or advanced combat first-aider.
"These soldiers are trained in advanced first-aid procedures and are similar to paramedics in the civilian world. These soldiers carry a comprehensive medical pack, enabling them to provide initial treatment to a wide range of trauma."
If a wounded soldier's injuries were serious, a medical evacuation helicopter would be called in, providing a capability "similar to the medical personnel who work on civilian careflight helicopters", the spokeswoman said.
Defence has been accused of endangering soldiers' lives because of a critical shortage of medical helicopters.
John Roberts, a former Australian army officer and now a contractor at Tarin Kowt in Oruzgan province where Australian troops are stationed, wrote to Defence Minister Joel Fitzgibbon last month, saying more than one medivac helicopter needed to be stationed at Tarin Kowt.
"The minimum safe level of Aero-Medical Evacuation capability required at Tarin Kowt is two dedicated helicopters - anything less is unnecessarily exposing our soldiers to the same or greater delay which did SIG McCarthy no favours," Mr Roberts wrote.
Australian troops in Afghanistan rely on NATO helicopter support for medivac operations, but only one AME helicopter is based at Tarin Kowt. If this is not available, a replacement has to fly in from Kandahar, 40 minutes away. Defence maintains this does not pose an unacceptable risk to lives, although Mr Fitzgibbon said last month he would explore the option of sending Australian medivac helicopters to Afghanistan.
The spokeswoman said non-medivac helicopters could be used to evacuate wounded troops if needed. "A general utility or cargo helicopter can carry casualties direct from the battlefield to a medical facility."
Last month, the evacuation of three injured Diggers in Oruzgan province was delayed after a US Army Black Hawk medivac helicopter crash-landed in front of the wounded troops. A replacement helicopter had to be called in from Kandahar to rescue them.
Correct me if I am wrong, but haven't Combat Medics been a part of SAS patrols since Vietnam?