03 February 2012

'We never would have saved them five years ago'

Army Spec. Bryce MacBride, wounded in Afghanistan in late 2010, waits in the hallway of a hospital at Bagram Airfield. (Linda Davidson — The Washington Post)

A recent report by the Congressional Research Service, “Afghanistan Casualties: Military Forces and Civilians”, reveals the remarkable ability of military medical professionals to save the lives of grievously wounded troops.

From a Washington Post article titled In Afghan war, rate of post-injury survival rises:

Last year, 415 American men and women died in Afghanistan, while 5,159 were wounded and survived.

That ratio — 12.4 survivors for every fatality — marked a record high over the past decade. In fact, the ratio has been growing almost every year since 2001.

In 2007, the first year in which battlefield deaths in Afghanistan surpassed 100, there were only 6.4 survivors for every fatality. The ratio dipped slightly in 2008 but has increased ever since.

How much better are doctors, nurses, medics, corpsmen and technicians in this war than in previous ones?

That’s hard to answer with precision. Comparisons are tricky because the quality of medical care isn’t all that changes between conflicts. Indeed, the nature and hazards of combat can evolve during the course of a war.

For example, a study of military personnel killed in Iraq and Afghanistan in the second half of 2006 found that 76 percent of fatalities were caused by explosions. Earlier in the wars (2003-04), that “mechanism of injury” was responsible for 56 percent of deaths.

In previous wars, blast injuries accounted for less than 10 percent of battle injuries.

That said, there is plenty of evidence that troops wounded today have a far better chance of survival than ever before.

In 2006, approximately 9.8 percent of wounded service members died either on the battlefield or after leaving it in Afghanistan and Iraq. During the Vietnam War, that figure, the “case fatality rate,” was 16 percent. During World War II, it was 19 percent.

“None of these kids would have survived in the civilian world,” Col. Jay Johannigman, an Air Force surgeon, said in late 2010 at Bagram Air Base in Afghanistan after a weekly meeting in which doctors review what has happened to critically injured troops after they return to the United States.

“And we never would have saved them five years ago.”

The entire article can be read here.

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