Soldiers from the 528th Hospital Center “Noble Knights” and 131st Field Hospital “Guardian Knights” on Fort Bliss, Texas, spent the last two weeks of August in a simulated deployed environment on west Bliss training and testing their skills.
Known as Operation Noble Focus, the training exercise not only tested the Soldiers’ ability to perform in their respective medical fields of study, but also required them to set up the tents that composed their medical facility.
“The Army combat support hospitals were recently updated to become field hospitals, which made us slightly smaller and more modular,” said Maj. Elizabeth Hultgren, operations officer for the 131st FH. “Within 24 hours of getting boots on ground to our location, we are able to immediately take patients through our emergency department, into our operating room, and place them in our intensive care unit.”
Hultgren compared the 32-bed field hospital with a traditional hospital, complete with a trauma operating room, an emergency room, pharmacy, radiology section, and a full laboratory.
She said, “We also have a patient administration department which tracks every patient and assists in getting those patients out – whether it’s an airlift to Germany or the United States – or working with host nations to get them to a civilian hospital.”
During the first 24 hours of the exercise everyone is involved with the initial setup of the facility. This is when the doctors, nurses and technicians become staking, stringing and tent teams. Rather than performing tests on patients, they are measuring and laying the framework for the tents that will compose the hospital, as well as placing generators and running water lines.
“We are all medical personnel,” said Sgt. 1st Class Jacob Madrid, 131st FH operations noncommissioned officer in charge. “We are not infantry or armor; we are medical personnel putting up a medical hospital in an environment that needs it, and we are capable of deploying anywhere in the world on a short notice to do so. We are the ones who will put it up and we are the ones who will man it.”
Madrid described the training exercise with a crawl, walk, run approach, and with about 75 percent of the participants new to Bliss, he said this year’s event was in the crawl/walk phase, which is one way the novel coronavirus positively impacted the exercise.
“COVID-19 has actually given us an opportunity to do more hands-on with our Soldiers,” he said. “That’s something you don’t always get. It’s always a ‘run, run, run,’ tempo. Now we have time to train and teach.”
Other signs of conducting a field exercise during a global pandemic included: mandatory face coverings, numerous hand-washing stations and temperature checks.
Another change, Madrid said they traditionally conduct 24-hour manning operations during an exercise like Operation Noble Focus. However, this year because of COVID-19, Soldiers went home at the end of each day to prevent living in close quarters – limiting exposure to one another.
Once the field hospital was up and running the departments conducted training in their individual sections and their leadership put them through scenarios to test their capabilities.
“Some of our scenarios are medical and some are more logistical,” Hultgren said. “Our medical scenarios are some of the more common things that we’ve seen in the last 20 years – gunshot wounds, blast injuries and burns, but we also want to throw some curveballs at ourselves. For example, what if we had a COVID patient – how would we maintain that level of isolation in a field hospital?”
On the logistical side, Hultgren said the scenarios are as simple as a generator failing.
She said, “We’ll actually shut down a generator so our personnel in the hospital can go through that battle drill and do their checks internally to make sure their equipment is still running, because they all have a battery backup. We also want them to go through the process of contacting our maintenance team, so they can go out, assess the generator and get it going again.”
The 131st FH is composed of the 131st Field Hospital Company “Warrior Knights”, the 214th Surgical Augmentation Detachment “Sentinel” and the 247th Medical Detachment “War Eagles.” The two detachments bring surgical, intensive care and intermittent care ward capabilities. They allow patients to recover and prepare to move to the next echelon of care after receiving their initial treatment in a deployed environment.
Hultgren said the Soldiers were not being graded or validated during Operation Noble Focus, instead the goal was getting them trained on their equipment and ready to deploy.
“We’re allowing our Soldiers, many of whom are new to our unit, to see for the first time what our actual deployed capability is,” she said. “These scenarios allow our Soldiers to train in their medical capability and get those repetitions in, so that when we are called upon to go – whether it is to help fight COVID somewhere in the United States, or called upon to go international when it’s our turn to deploy – we are ensuring our team is ready to roll at a moment’s notice.”