IRAQI KURDISTAN // More Than Just First Aid
This article originally appeared in the Jerusalem Post
THE AMERICAN CHRISTIAN AID VOLUNTEERS GIVING KURDISH PESHMERGA MEDICAL TRAINING
A US-BASED CHRISTIAN AID GROUP TEACHES PESHMERGA FIGHTERS HOW TO SAVE THEIR LIVES AND THOSE OF THEIR COMRADES.
By Seth J. Frantzman
“Do not run, it’s not a race,” says the medical instructor to the six men carrying comrades on their backs.
It’s a hot day on the front line at Hawija, in Iraq’s northern Kirkuk province, whose sandbagged and concrete positions festoon the hills.
On a dirt road just behind the line, an American medical volunteer provides emergency- care training for a dozen Kurdish Peshmerga.
This is the last Kurdish front line against Islamic State, but this combat medic program could save lives in this or a future conflict.
The training mission taking place is part of an effort started by Dalton Thomas, who founded Frontier Alliance International (FAI) in 2012, after the Arab Spring broke out.
“I was watching what happened in Daraa,” he says in a phone conversation, referring to the city where the Syrian revolution started with protests against Bashar Assad’s regime.
Previously, Thomas had been involved in aid work and Christian relief work in South America and Indonesia.
“I told my wife we should start a new entity focused on the Middle East,” he tells The Jerusalem Post. “No one knew – is this thing bubbling in Daraa going to be a flash in the pan? – and I wanted to commit our lives for the next decades to the Middle East.”
Six years later, the war is still raging and hundreds of thousands have been killed.
“My view of Christian relief is [that it is] good counter-insurgency, not just because we believe in the Gospel, but [in] having a different influence, more neutral and hospitable, warm and affectionate,” he says.
It wasn’t long until Thomas and his team learned about the war ISIS had launched against the Kurds.
“We started teams in Kurdistan and fell in love with Kurdistan,” he says.
With FAI, Thomas produced Better Friends than Mountains, a documentary about the Kurdish people. What began with aid to local Peshmerga brigades in the region soon developed into what he describes as a “broad-based effort to provide emergency medical care to the Peshmerga all across the front line, conducting ongoing combat casualty-care training and education, and [providing] aid to civilians caught in the war.”
An American paramedic who asked that his name be withheld for security reasons has conducted five training sessions for groups of 15 Peshmerga at a time along the front. He comes with a background of 17 years in emergency rescue service.
“Our purpose behind doing the courses is we take the 15 best guys [in the unit] and train them in medical [skills], and of those 15, we hand-pick some for a detailed course of being an instructor,” the paramedic tells the Post.
This creates a force multiplier for Kurdish units that often lack basic medical training.
When ISIS launched a surprise attack on the Kurds in northern Iraq in August 2014, many Peshmerga streamed to the front line to defend their land. However, many units lacked basic resources to evacuate the wounded, and many lacked men with any medical training.
“The most critical thing is when they become injured, we teach them hemorrhage control of massive bleeding,” the American volunteer says.
Statistics show that 80% of battlefield deaths come from massive hemorrhaging, he adds.
On the hillside near Hawija, the American volunteer shows the men how to pack a wound. He then demonstrates the use of a tourniquet.
“We can only do what we can with one person [at a time],” he says.
The Peshmerga ask him what they should do if a man has two wounds. The volunteer shows them how to deal with one wound, and then the other.
He then asks the men to pair up and shows them how to do what is called the Hawes Carry. A relatively easy way to move a casualty to cover, it involves grabbing the wounded man’s wrist, turning your back to the victim and holding his wrist over your shoulder, and then bending slightly to lift him on your back.
The Peshmerga take turns carrying each other 20 meters back and forth. The instructor then shows them how to do a two-person supporting carry, where two soldiers carry a man off the battlefield. It’s a hot day and he tells the Peshmerga to make sure they drink enough water.
For these Kurds, the multi-day course has real-world implications.
“In every class, at least one person in the group has been shot and at least one has seen a friend die on the battlefield,” the instructor says.
Some of the Peshmerga have been several wars – against ISIS, against al-Qaida and against Saddam Hussein.
The local volunteers say FAI has received welcome support from the Peshmerga Ministry.
“The next biggest challenge past this is that we just train people to put a tourniquet on, and that buys time to get them to surgery,” the volunteer says. “The ‘golden hour’ is the hour in traumatic injuries from when you get injured to care.”