Army Reserve Sgt. Nick Garcia, a combat medic assigned to the 407th Medical Company, 49th Medical Battalion, 332nd Medical Brigade, San Juan, Puerto Rico, opened the rear doors of the Army M997A3 field litter ambulance. Lowering the access steps, he turned to the small path leading from the road to a field tent where Pfc. Sanchez Lang, a combat medic assigned to the 20th Engineer Battalion, Headquarters and Headquarters Company, 36th Engineer Brigade, Fort Hood, Texas, was slowly making his way toward the ambulance with the help of his battle buddy, Staff Sgt. Javest Foxe, also of the 20th.
Garcia is almost 10 years into his Army career, and like many Soldiers he enlisted in the Army to gain assistance with college, earning a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering. In his civilian life, he is a system engineer for Lockheed Martin at Cape Canaveral, Fla.
Though he has never been deployed, he was activated in response to Hurricane Maria, a category five hurricane that struck Puerto Rico in 2017. During that activation he assisted in setting up makeshift clinics to aid in medical infrastructure, which was decimated due to power loss, and treated casualties ranging from minor to severe trauma. Garcia is reluctant to discuss the latter.
Garcia and Foxe helped Lang up the steps. With each raise of a leg, Lang winced in pain.
“Back injury,” said Foxe in explanation.
Lang settled onto a field litter in the back of the ambulance while Foxe sat across from him.
At 31 years old, Lang is only 16 months into his military career. Like Garcia, he is a combat medic and enlisted in the Army to assist with college. After working in the medical field as a clinical research assistant for 11 years, he decided to return to college to further his medical career and is currently two years into a six-year program to become a nurse practitioner.
Lang admits his civilian medical training has outpaced his Army training but is grateful for the opportunity to build his resume and continue college.
The ambulance begins to move toward the exit gate of Forward Operating Base Panther, a small tent city in rural Indiana where Garcia and Lang currently reside. The road is rough, so the driver, Spc. David Villanueva, 407th Medical Company, takes it slow.
The FOB is one of a few small Indiana military bases hosting annual training event Guardian Response 21, a multi-component Homeland Emergency Response Exercise run by the Army Reserve’s 78th Training Division. Many units are training for the chemical, biological, radiological, and nuclear response enterprise mission, a Department of Defense set of forces sourced to rapidly respond to CBRN incidents.
Garcia climbs from the front passenger seat to the rear of the ambulance where he begins to evaluate his patient. He takes his temperature, blood pressure, asks how he is feeling and takes notes on a prepared form.
“I have a previous back injury,” says Lang. “I was doing some work at the end of the day yesterday and I guess my back gave out. I had some excruciating pain and tried to sleep it off. That did not help.”
“He was prepping for the rain to come. That’s why we were getting the tent ready, so it wouldn’t wash out,” says Foxe. “We were packing rocks in sand bags, moving a lot of stuff so the rain wouldn’t mess up the tactical operations center. It hurt a little initially, but eventually bit him in the end.”
That made sense. FOB Panther looked more like a lake when I arrived this morning from nearby Muscatatuck Urban Training Center. Soldiers had been scrambling to dig trenches to reroute water away from tents and create walkways made from pallets.
When asked how long Lang would stay in the Army, he only needs a moment to answer. Giving his phone a quick glance, he said “Two years, eight months and two weeks.” Lang and Foxe both laugh. “He’s got a counter on his phone,” says Foxe.
“How’s your pain level,” says Garcia to Lang.
“A seven,” responds Lang. “Nine when it becomes a sharp pain.”
“Radiating?” asks Garcia.
“Yes, radiating down my right side into my leg, foot and toes,” responds Lang.
Lang’s medical background is apparent in how he describes his injury to Garcia. They are both on the same page.
As the ambulance arrives at the civilian hospital, Villanueva climbs out of the driver’s seat and opens the rear doors. The overcast daylight streams into the back of the vehicle as our eyes adjust. “We’re here.”
Garcia and Foxe help Lang out of the ambulance and into the hospital to check in. A few minutes later, Garcia returns to the ambulance and begins to sanitize the area where Lang and Foxe were sitting. In the medical field, cleanliness is key.
Garcia and Villanueva are two of many medics taking part in GR21. However, unlike many of their medical peers, they are not part of the training scenario; they are real-world. Over the past few days, they have handled seasonal allergies, an accidental hand injury with blood loss requiring stiches and now Lang. It’s an important job.
The two medics climb back into the ambulance as I grab my kevlar and jump into the passenger seat this time. Garcia sits in the back. We pull out of the parking lot, and Villanueva stares intently out the windshield as we drive. The sky is beginning to clear up and the Sun is coming out as we arrive at the gates of FOB Panther. As real-world medics, Garcia and Villanueva will be some of the last to leave when the exercise concludes, on-hand to support their peers as they train, always ready.