Sgt. 1st Class John Dominguez assists a U.S. service member who wasinjured in Haiti. Photo courtesy Sgt. 1st Class John Dominguez
In the late afternoon of Dec. 5, 2001, a Special Forces team called Operation Detachment Alpha called for air support in a village south of Kandahar, Afghanistan. Rounds from a recent air strike had come in dangerously close, and American soldiers nearby had caught shrapnel from the blast.
"We had enough casualties to fill the back of a C-130 aircraft," recalls Sgt. 1st Class John Dominguez, who had arrived in nearby Uzbekistan on his first combat tour less than two months earlier as an army medic. For an hour, the 28-year-old from San Antonio communicated via headset to the other medics and kept an eye on the soldiers, whose cries of pain were drowned by the noise of the engine. One of the injured soldiers died after being transferred off the aircraft.
"I realized the level of care I provided could be improved," Dominguez says.
"I never wanted to find myself in a situation where I did not have an adequate level of training in order to be able to treat a patient."
After a second tour in Iraq in 2003, Dominguez enrolled in the special operations combat medic program at the Joint Special Operations Medical Training Center (JSOMTC) in Fort Bragg, N.C. Through the program, selected enlisted soldiers receive training beyond that of standard Army medics in extensive trauma medicine, veterinary medicine, dental medicine, pharmaceutical calculations and more. After the classroom training at Fort Bragg, almost half of the students come to VCU Medical Center to complete clinical rotations.
"Their training is more intense than what I went through in medical school," says Dr. Bruce Spiess, professor of anesthesiology and co-founder of the special operations combat medic program at VCU. "It's learning through a fire hose."
The program is part of the VCU Reanimation Engineering Science Center, one of the world's largest and most multidisciplinary research and education efforts centered on critical illness and injury. It includes more than 70 scientists throughout 30 departments across VCU's Medical College of Virginia and Monroe campuses. VCU was selected by JSOMTC as a training site in 2000, in large part because of the high-volume mix of trauma patients and critical care teaching capability at VCU, which has Central Virginia's only Level 1 trauma center. The program at VCU just trained its 1,000th special operations combat medic.
"It's where we take the academics of what we've been taught didactically and we put it into practice in a controlled environment," Dominguez says of the rotation that includes two weeks at VCU and one week with Henrico County's fire and rescue department.
During his training at VCU in April 2005, Dominguez treated cyclists who had been struck by an automobile. Another day, he treated two truckloads of workers who had been injured in a vehicle rollover. "The training at VCU provided me with the peace of mind that I was going to be able to provide the best medical care we could for our patients, and the care and intervention I provided were equal to that of a major trauma center," Dominguez says.
After serving in Afghanistan, Iraq, Ethiopia, the Philippines, Bangladesh and Haiti, Dominguez is now a senior instructor at the Special Warfare Center and School, teaching students in the combat medic program at Fort Bragg. He says that he stresses the importance of paying close attention in class and on clinical rotations so that his students are prepared when they go into battle.
"When it comes down to it, there is no second chance for the guys we work on," Dominguez says. "Your second-place medal ends up being a folded flag to the next of kin."