Army reservists are arriving in Afghanistan to begin a three-month deployment running the British field hospital at Camp Bastion.
49 reservist medics from 243 Field Hospital are deploying to run the British ‘Role 3’ medical facility at the main base for UK military operations in Afghanistan.
243 Field Hospital is a fully functioning deployable hospital and has all the facilities you’d find in a civilian hospital in the UK, with an emergency department, operating theatres, wards, X-ray capability and pathology laboratories.
The Role 3 medical facility at Camp Bastion is often described as one of the busiest trauma units in the world; it’s certainly one of the most advanced. And, uniquely, it’s a consultant-led hospital, with each patient being cared for by more consultants than they would back in Britain.
Of all the seriously injured personnel brought to the Role 3 hospital from the battlefield, 98 per cent of them will survive.
Improvements in battlefield medicine and equipment 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 non-battle-related illnesses and complaints, ranging from common infections and insect and animal bites to sports injuries.
It makes for an exhausting and relentless three-month mission. Around 100 days of life-saving service will see these reservists willingly leave their 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 at the cutting-edge of military medicine.
Second-in-Command of 243 Field Hospital, Lieutenant Colonel Heather Saunders, a regional nurse advisor in the Army Primary Healthcare Service in her day job, said:
I feel privileged to have been able to work out there. 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.
The reservist medics under Lt Col Saunders’ command are individually picked for their professional skills and levels 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 all reservists who deploy to Afghanistan, the reservist medics from 243 Field Hospital will return home bringing with them leadership and management skills which will also benefit their civilian employers.
What’s different about reservist 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 reservist medics from 243 Field Hospital will serve in Afghanistan for three months; however, some will serve for six months and some consultants will be in Afghanistan for around eight months.
Just days before leaving for Afghanistan on Operation HERRICK 17 - 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 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 reservist 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 of 243 Field Hospital work on the front line looking after patients. Dave Thomas is responsible for 750 staff and a budget of £30m during his day job at the Weston General Hospital in Yeovil, Somerset.
In Afghanistan Dave is a trauma nurse co-ordinator 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. Dave said:
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.
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.
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 Army reservists served in Afghanistan alongside the regulars.