Joined Forces

April 25, 2017

This article first appeared in the April 2017 issue of Training & Conditioning.

National Guard medics might seem out of place on a college campus, just as college athletic trainers may stick out on a military base. At the University of Wisconsin and nearby Fort McCoy, however, both have become familiar sights, as these two groups have spent the last year learning from each other on their respective home fields.

The idea for the partnership came in the summer of 2015. Wisconsin National Guard medics were encountering more soft-tissue injuries than usual in service men and women. But since they were accustomed to dealing with trauma on the battlefield, they weren’t always sure of the best ways to treat or prevent these sprains and strains. 

Around the same time, Wisconsin National Guard medic Staff Sgt. Tim Ehlers was impressed by the way athletic trainers responded to injuries while watching a Badgers football game. Knowing how frequently athletic trainers deal with soft-tissue issues, Ehlers realized his fellow medics could learn a lot from them.

With this in mind, he contacted Denny Helwig, MS, LAT, Wisconsin Assistant Director for Sports Medicine, hoping to start a collaboration between the National Guard and the Badgers’ sports medicine staff. Helwig was on board with the idea and enlisted Assistant Athletic Trainer Kyle Gibson, MS, ATC, CES, for help with gaining approval from the appropriate administrators.

“It was an easy sell because it’s beneficial for both sides,” says Gibson. “We train the medics on our campus, and then we send athletic trainers to the base to learn about trauma and managing injuries during stressful situations.”

In August of 2016, the partnership officially got underway. Dubbed “Operation Badger Medic,” the first mission sent a group of medics to the university for a week of training. Since then, more than 20 National Guard medics have taken part over the fall and winter sports seasons.

During the weeklong sessions, the medics accompany and observe the athletic trainers in their daily interactions with athletes. Although the medics are not able to work on the athletes, they practice the skills they learn—such as taping and evaluating patients—on the athletic trainers. At the end of each week, the medics stand alongside the athletic trainers at a game and witness their responsibilities in real time, while assisting whenever possible.

On the flip side, Wisconsin has sent 10 athletic trainers 110 miles northwest to Fort McCoy. There, they work alongside the medics, learning how to evaluate patients on the battlefield, create tourniquets, set IVs, and open airways. While these sessions are typically more trauma-based than what athletic trainers normally face, Gibson says the learning lies within the bigger picture.

“Even under stress, the medics go through their checklist and make sure their patient is stable,” he explains. “That’s a good example for athletic trainers to follow when we are dealing with a serious injury on the field and have to go through our own checklist. Sometimes we have 100,000 people staring at us while we do an evaluation, but we still need to take the best possible care of that athlete.”

Wisconsin also sent four athletic trainers to speak at Fort McCoy’s annual medic training. Their presentations focused on processes for dealing with various injuries, including taping and evaluations.

Feedback on Operation Badger Medic has been positive from both sides. Gibson plans to bring 15 more medics to campus throughout the rest of this year, and he hopes to have similar numbers next year. “We are happy to do anything we can to help the military,” he says. “We are really excited that the partnership has gone so well.”