IRON HORSE STATE PARK – Spc. André Williams crouched on the steep slope. The Fort Lewis medic planted his left boot firmly into the dirt to ensure he wouldn’t slide away.
He pulled the thick nylon rope wrapped around the tree next to him to make sure it was secure. It anchored another soldier near the edge of a 60-foot cliff.
When he received the signal from a trainer, Williams started feeding a second rope through his gloves. Working with other medics guiding other ropes, the soldier at the end of the line disappeared off the rock face and landed softly on the ground below.
“Just that simple,” the 24-year-old North Carolina native said with a laugh Tuesday.
An hour later, Williams would be back atop the cliff to help lower a basket containing a stretcher.
He was one of 15 medics from Madigan Army Medical Center participating Tuesday in high-angle, high-altitude training in the Cascade Mountains, near North Bend.
Williams isn’t scheduled to deploy overseas anytime soon. But the training objective was obvious: The medics were learning how to work effectively in the mountains of Afghanistan.
Sixty soldiers, all enlisted with a rank of staff sergeant or below, will take part in the training this week. Instructors from Remote Medical International, a Seattle company, lead the wilderness survival courses that teach basics such as tying solid knots, properly anchoring ropes and lowering people and litters down steep slopes.
“They get downrange to Afghanistan, and things are different there,” said Matthew Griffin, of Remote Medical International. He deployed three times as an officer in Fort Lewis’ 2nd Battalion, 75th Ranger Regiment.
“Instead of calling in a helicopter and waiting four or five minutes to evacuate someone, it’s a 45-minute wait. Or a 145-minute wait,” he said. “They might touch on the high-angle, high-altitude stuff a bit in training. But it’s just not something you can learn in the classroom. And in Afghanistan, you need it.”
The soldiers are assigned to various roles at Madigan – Williams works in the ophthalmology department – but they are also trained as combat medics.
Many will likely serve at some point with a unit deploying to Afghanistan or Iraq.
“Training like this – it’s huge,” said Staff Sgt. D.J. Hux, who returned earlier this year from a 15-month deployment to Iraq with a combat support hospital. “A lot of times, we get locked into management (at Madigan). This is us getting back to what we were trained to do.”
Remote Medical International has offered wilderness training to military units and law enforcement agencies across the country. The demand is rising with the military’s increasing focus on Afghanistan.
President Barack Obama ordered an additional 17,000 troops to Afghanistan in February. Locally, about 4,000 Fort Lewis infantry troops with the 5th Brigade, 2nd Infantry Division are in the first weeks of a yearlong deployment to the nation’s volatile Kandahar and Zabul provinces.
The landscape of Afghanistan can vary from flat, sandy deserts, such as those found in Iraq, to impassable, craggy mountains – terrain Griffin described as “simply violent at times.” It can make operations difficult and medical evacuations a headache. Mountain roads are often little more than narrow paths on the edge of cliffs.
The steep mountains in Iron Horse State Park are the most convenient local equivalent.
“This is perfect training for what they’ll see in Afghanistan,” said Aaron Orr, a civilian contractor who works at Madigan’s Medical Simulation Training Center. The nine-year Army veteran served as a medic in Afghanistan, Iraq, Bosnia and Uzbekistan.
Safely transporting a wounded soldier to a flat, open location where he or she can be evacuated aboard a helicopter can be tricky in Afghanistan – but it can also save lives, Orr said.
Col. Jerry Penner, who took command of Madigan last week, was there to see Tuesday’s training. He recently served as commander at Fort Drum, N.Y., home of the 10th Mountain Division, which has deployed several brigades to Afghanistan.
“You will be in a situation like this,” he told the Fort Lewis medics, “and you need training like this.”
Scott Fontaine: 253-320-4758