JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas –
Just short of one full year of training under COVID-19 mitigation measures, the U.S. Army Medical Center of Excellence, or MEDCoE, at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston graduated their 20,000th trainee on March 19, 2021.
Col. Skip Gill, MEDCoE Deputy Commandant, said in the last 52 weeks since COVID-19-related travel restrictions were put in place at the MEDCoE, the training and education organization has executed 93% of their training portfolio, or 841 of 907 classes from more than 257 training and education courses.
All of the Army’s medical professionals receive training at the MEDCoE at some point in their career, either during initial entry or professional military education courses. Trainees include over 47 medical military specialties, including nurses, doctors, physician assistants, respiratory specialists, medical laboratory specialists and combat medics.
Sgt. Carter McCall, Company C, 2nd Battalion Security Force Assistance Brigade, Joint Base Lewis McChord, Washington, is a 68W Combat Medic who attended MEDCoE’s Tactical Combat Medical Care, or TCMC, course for a deployment requirement.
“I just found out that I am the 20,000th graduate from the MEDCoE,” McCall said between battalion aid station and trauma lane scenarios the day prior to the official TCMC graduation conducted at Joint Base San Antonio-Camp Bullis March 19.
McCall remarked how surprised he was that the graduate number was so high in just one year despite the challenges in travel and the additional safety measures that were added to the course after the onset of COVID-19.
“It is a testament to the MEDCoE to be able to continue to put on this high-quality training for medical providers, people on the front lines,” he added.
McCall, who also graduated Advanced Individual Training, or AIT, at MEDCoE in March 2017, said much that he learned in the course was priceless as the training will be put to use to save lives.
“It’s better to make mistakes on plastic with a bunch of people around you on the training pad here at JBSA-Fort Sam Houston than to do it when you are on your own in the woods or out in the desert," McCall said.
He said the most impactful part of the training was being trained by highly experienced TCMC cadre who are retired nurses and physician assistants and getting to work on a team with fellow students, many of whom were flight surgeons, nurses and physician assistants as well.
“Having a provider’s point of view, and the wealth of knowledge that comes from a provider, really helped me out as a combat medic,” McCall said.
He believes that this course is vital for any unit that has a Role 1 medical treatment responsibility which includes providing initial triage, medical treatment, and evacuation when needed.
“If you’re going to be a treatment NCO or higher, even a senior line medic, this is a great course,” McCall said. “Anyone higher than your sergeant on the line needs to come to this course to get all of the latest and greatest information coming out of the schoolhouse.”
“The biggest impact that COVID-19 had on our program was the significant decrement in our student throughput, specifically, the 14-day quarantine that students had to execute prior to our 5-day course,” said Maj. Charisse Gonzalez, a 65D Physician Assistant serving as the TCMC Branch Chief and Program Director.
Gill explained that there was minimal COVID-19 impact to inbound trainees for courses like AIT since AIT Soldiers are moved from Basic Combat Training to Fort Sam Houston in highly controlled transports. Smaller courses like TCMC saw a decrease in attendance, especially early on in the pandemic when the DOD issued a stop movement.
“The fill percentage was dramatically lower during COVID-19 compared to the previous year,” Gill said.
He believes the lower fill rate was most likely driven by travel restrictions and restriction of movement, or ROM, and quarantine requirements.
“Since this course lasts only five days, it was one of the hardest hit by the 14-day ROM requirement as many units opted not to pay three weeks of TDY for five days of training,” he added.
Despite the lower fill rates, Gill believes TCMC is one of the success stories during the pandemic.
“This course truly embodied the commanding general’s guidance of keeping the training doors open throughout the pandemic for any and all who were able to attend while meeting all necessary safety precautions,” Gill said. “This was especially important given the highly rigorous and realistic battlefield trauma training conducted in this pre-deployment course.”
Gonzalez credited the professionalism, commitment and competence of TCMC instructors for the overall course success during COVID-19. She also commended the great support she received at every level from MEDCoE leadership to TCMC support staff.
“We have succeeded in this vital mission due to our staff’s resilience, passion for the mission, as well as their innovation,” Gonzalez said. “It is important that we could continue to train during COVID-19 because we prepare and train these Soldiers for deployment, especially in austere environments, as well as providing them individual critical task list training.”
MEDCoE’s 20,000th graduate agreed and said he was not only thankful for his unit for sending him to the training, but also thankful that MEDCoE found a way to continue to train safely using COVID-19 mitigation measures.
“Nothing ever stops,” McCall said. “People are always getting sick, people are always getting injured, so we need to continue to train.”