After training for two years in their spare time, this week 49 Reserve (TA) medics from hospitals across the West Country are arriving in Afghanistan on a three-month mission to run the British field hospital at Camp Bastion, bringing with them life-saving skills to treat the sick and injured thousands of miles from home.
The Reservist medics from 243 Field Hospital (volunteers) are deploying to run the British ‘Role 3’ medical facility at the sprawling base in the Afghan desert; the main base of the UK military operations in Afghanistan. This is where injured British soldiers, Afghan National Security Forces and civilians are treated and lives are saved.
243 Field Hospital is a fully functioning deployable hospital. It mimics all the facilities you’d find in a civilian hospital back in the UK with an Emergency Department, operating theatres, wards, X-ray and pathology laboratories.
What’s different is the level of trauma it deals with. The Role 3 medical facility at Camp Bastion is often descried as one of the busiest trauma units on Earth. It’s also one of the most advanced. Uniquely, it’s a consultant led hospital with each patient being cared for by more consultants than they would back in Britain.
Of all those brought back seriously injured from the battlefield to the Role 3 hospital at Camp Bastion, 98 per cent of them will survive. Improvements in battlefield medicine and kit play a crucial part, but it's at the hospital in Camp Bastion where these patients' lives are saved by a team of dedicated medical professionals, some of them Reservists like those from 243 Field Hospital.
But not all of the patients treated at the hospital in Camp Bastion have serious injuries from the battlefield. Many - around 40 per cent - need treatment for a host of other diseases, non-battle illnesses and complaints, ranging from common infections, insect and animal bites; right through to sports injuries.
It makes for an exhausting and relentless three month mission; around 100 days of life-saving service which will see these Reservists willingly leave husbands, wives and children at home over Christmas to help the sick and injured thousands of miles away.
These medical professionals from NHS hospitals and other medical facilities across the South West of England have already spent the best part of a month away from home training for their deployment. Once in Afghanistan they’ll work alongside colleagues from the US Army, forming a 250 strong team on the cutting edge of military medicine.
'First class service'
"I feel privileged to have been able to work out there’ said Lt Col Heather Saunders, the Second-in-Command of 243 Field Hospital. Originally from Oxford, she’s a regional nurse advisor for Army Primary Health Care in her day job.
"We are there to serve a purpose for the troops that actually go and put their lives on the line and I think that’s what makes it so worthwhile knowing that we’re actually giving a first class service to the troops," added Lt Col Saunders who is deploying on her third tour having served in Iraq and then Afghanistan in 2009.
The Reserve medics under Lt Col Saunders’ command are individually picked for their professional skills and level of experience before serving in Afghanistan. It’s perhaps the most obvious example of Reservists successfully serving shoulder-to-shoulder with their Regular counterparts, but bringing with them vital skills which are needed by the British Army.
Like the Reservist medics from 24 Field Hospital who are deploying to save lives in Afghanistan, the Reserves are playing a central and crucial role in the mission there and around the world.
Since 2003, more than 26,000 Army Reservists have deployed on operations in support of their Regular colleagues. Of that number, 21 have given their lives for their country. Earlier this summer some 550 Territorial Army soldiers served in Afghanistan alongside the Regulars.
Like all of these Reserve soldiers, the Reserve medics from 243 Field Hospital will return home bringing with them incredibly honed leadership and management skills which will benefit their civilian employers. What’s different about the Reserve medics is that they’ll also bring back first hand experience of groundbreaking medical procedures which will be used to treat people in their local communities back home in Britain.
Most of the Reserve medics from 243 Field Hospital will serve in Afghanistan for three months. Some will serve six months, and some consultants will be in Afghanistan for around 8 weeks; but the vast majority are sacrificing Christmas at home with their husbands, wives and children to make sure our soldiers are given the best possible treatment while they’re serving their country.
'Ready to do our duties'
It’s an ethos that’s shared by Sergeant Debbie Evans, a bank nurse at Plymouth’s Derriford Hospital. The Grandmother with a 28 year career in the TA and two pervious tours under her belt, knows she still has a lot to give, "That’s what you sign up to do… We’ll be glad to get out there now… We’ve done loads of training and we’re now ready to do our duties over there… Then it’s the countdown to coming home. My daughter is fine about it but she’s hoping this is the last time."
Just days before leaving for Afghanistan on OP HERRICK 17A - the unit’s second tour in the past five years - 243 Field Hospital was put through its paces at the Army Medical Services Training Centre (AMSTC) at Strensall, near York.
The facility, the only one of its kind in Britain, is a mirror image of the field hospital in Camp Bastion and is the perfect environment to test Reservist medics before they deploy. Volunteers with real missing limbs, not to mention the feel of new uniforms and desert boots and the unfamiliar ‘chink’ of dog tags on their chests, all add to the realism which immerses these Reserve medics in an atmosphere as realistic as possible without actually being in Afghanistan.
The 'Strensall Test' is mission specific training and the culmination of two years of preparation, but it’s also an important final validation which must be passed before the unit can deploy.
But not all of the Reservists at 243 Field Hospital work on the front line looking after patients.
Forty-year-old Dave Thomas from Yeovil in Somerset is responsible for 750 staff and a budget of £30 million during his day job at The Weston General Hospital. In Afghanistan he’ll be a trauma nurse coordinator with the vital job of administering the transfer of injured soldiers being sent back to the Queen Elizabeth Hospital in Birmingham, the main receiving unit for all military patients injured overseas, for more specialist care.
It’s the same job he did when he last deployed in 2008; ‘I’m at the head of the bed when the casualty comes in so that we can get this info back to Birmingham before the casualty gets back.’
It’s a busy job which will see Dave working 18 hours a day for the entire tour with no days off, but he’s immensely proud of the life-saving work his colleagues do in Afghanistan; "The guys in the Regiment are brilliant. Nobody does this for any other reason than we want to go out and be at the forefront of military medicine and deliver patients a level of care that you couldn’t expect in the UK."
It’s obviously a job Dave is committed to, but he admits it’s difficult to leave his family behind. His wife, who 'isn’t a big fan' of him being away is also very understanding and supportive as are their three children; ‘Last time I went away they got a puppy when I returned. This time they’re getting a holiday to Florida. So they’ve got something to look forward to… They’ll get plenty of emails and lots of parcels and they’re immensely supportive."
Major Rose Chapman, a Reserve medic for more than twenty years, is another member of the unit leaving her children behind for three months to serve her country.
The 46-year-old who is a bank nurse, also working at Derriford Hospital, has taken the difficult decision to miss both of her daughters’ birthdays and Christmas to serve her country.
But Rose, who’s on her third tour in her Reserve career, the second to Afghanistan, knows all too well there are hundreds of mothers like her back home in Britain who’ll be worrying about their sons and daughters who are deploying to Afghanistan, some in harm’s way.
With Taunton’s 40 Commando deploying at the same time as her, Rose was keen to reassure those families across the South West and beyond that if the worst were to happen, their loved ones will be looked after; "I want [them] all to know we really are the best team going out," said Major Chapman.
"We are a fantastic group of people who are going there really wanting to do the best we can for all your sons, daughters, fathers and brothers, anybody that is going to Afghanistan. We want to give them the very best care they could ever wish for."
Back at Strensall near York it’s nearing the end of the final day of the exercise when the Tannoy suddenly comes to life; ‘Attention. Attention. End Ex. End Ex.’
Whoops of delight erupt around the hanger as 243’s TA medics ‘high five’ their new colleagues from the US Army. That’s it. They’ve passed the Strensall Test. They’re on their way to Afghanistan.
And as latex gloves are snapped off and beds are stripped at lightning speed by expert hands, the theme from M.A.S.H blares out of the speakers. The training is over. Now it’s time for the Reserve medics from 243 Field Hospital to leave for Afghanistan to save lives for real.