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Shooting Pigs is No Way to Train Our Soldiers

By Neal Barnard, M.D.

This opinion piece was published on July 28, 2008, in the Honolulu Star-Bulletin.

The U.S. military has reached a new low in its continued neglect of our troops' safety. Instead of providing state-of-the-art medical training for Army personnel, instructors with the 3rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, shot a group of pigs at Hawaii's Schofield Barracks on July 18. They then instructed soldiers to practice treating the animals' wounds.

Training on a pig is no substitute for proper medical experience. But when they get to Iraq later this year, these are the caregivers who will be the first to respond to our fallen soldiers.

The incident is the latest example of the military's failure to support its own. In late 2003, body armor and Humvees shipped to Iraq were shown to be flimsy and inadequate. In 2005, the Marine Corps recalled combat vests, because they provided inadequate protection. In February 2007, the abysmal medical care at Walter Reed Army Medical Center was exposed. In the aftermath, military heads rolled, including Walter Reed's commander, Maj. Gen. George W. Weightman and Secretary of the Army Francis J. Harvey.

Now, it is Army "medical" training for battlefield care that gets a failing grade. In the civilian world, surgeons, emergency physicians, nurses and physician's assistants spend years learning how to give the best care. And they learn it by mentoring with experienced clinicians in hospitals, clinics and trauma centers. They learn about human anatomy and human injuries, not veterinary medicine. They are ready to treat life-threatening injuries.

Along the way, they practice on simulators, like the TraumaMan simulators, which are approved by the American College of Surgeons and are nearly universal in civilian Advanced Trauma Life Support courses. To ask military trainees to instead practice on pigs would mean learning all the wrong anatomy and the wrong medical skills.

In the 1980s, many medical schools used animals to teach basic concepts and simple manual skills. Over the years, these crude exercises have given way to superior methods. Of 154 U.S. medical schools, all but eight have scrapped the animal exercises in their curricula. Not surprisingly, one of the last hold-outs still using animals is the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences -- the military medical school in Bethesda, Md., although even it closed its animal-shooting program in the 1980s.

Many trainees object to these exercises. They did not join the service to shoot animals, and they are not looking for substandard training.

Even the pigs could not get decent care. They were drugged with ketamine, a medication that disrupts mental processes but does not induce full anesthesia. Let's hope our military caregivers know how to relieve the pain in wounded soldiers.

The change in medical teaching outside the military reflects more than improving medical technology. Medical ethics is changing, too. The days when animals can simply be regarded as throwaway medical supplies are numbered as our society is coming to realize that animals -- even the not-so-cute-and-cuddly ones -- should not be wantonly abused. In fact, Department of Defense policies mandate that alternatives to animals are to be used in research and education where they exist.

And what about the soldiers? Their injuries are often complex. Who will explain to their widows and orphans that their commander thought that practicing on a pig should have been good enough?

It is time that our military leaders learn the meaning of respect: a healthy respect for new medical technology, respect for medical ethics that applies both to people and animals, and respect for the soldiers who give their all, and deserve our all in return.

Neal Barnard, M.D., is president of the Washington, D.C.-based Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, a nonprofit organization of physicians and laypeople that promotes preventive medicine and addresses controversies in modern medicine.


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