It took 18 years, but Air Force Reserve physician Lt. Col. (Dr.) Jesse Wells completed the austere winter and summer medical courses at Marine Corps Mountain Warfare Training Center located in the Sierra Mountains near Bridgeport, California.
The center was launched in the middle of the Korean War for cold weather pre-deployment training after the Department of Defense realized that the majority of American casualties were the result of frostbite and hypothermia.
After being mothballed for nearly a decade during the Vietnam War, the center reopened in 1976 and played a key role in preparing soldiers for deployment to the Afghan mountains. The tempo of operations at the center continues to increase and today includes year-round courses as well as major combat training exercises for Marine battalions. It also serves as a training platform for allied forces.
The center hosts two wilderness medicine courses.
In 2004, Wells, then captain, completed the two-week summer medical course. He was the only non-Navy participant and the only reservist in the class.
Wells, who is currently a member of the ground surgical team at the 349th Medical Squadron at Travis Air Force Base, Calif., still remembers the class well, including finishing first among 24 students during the first day on ” Heart Attack Hill” and successive daily field exercises, each more strenuous and technically challenging than the last.
“After learning abseiling, including a technique using only rucksacks as friction devices, we were supervised to mount and lower patients in stretchers, first on steep slopes and then sideways. of cliffs,” Wells said.
The doctor said he clearly remembered the final of the course.
“It was a night exercise followed by a competition between two platoons pursued by ‘enemy’ forces,” he said. “The only escape route involved crossing a deep canyon using a rope line over a raging river…and dragging a litter patient through.” Wells led the winning field.
“We completed the last six kilometers in a half race with full combat loads, watching over our shoulders to make sure we passed the other peloton. The stakes were high. The losing peloton had to clean the “head”.
Fast forward to January 2022. Eighteen years after completing the summer course, Wells has returned to test himself again in the winter course.
“I had always intended to come back for the winter course, but the family and civil career, that is to say life, did not offer an opening,” he says.
The class was supposed to have 45 students, but after losses from COVID screenings, the class size had dropped to 31. Once again, Wells was the only Air Force attendee and the only reservist. In addition to Navy Corpsmen and medics, there were three Navy Seals and two Army Rangers enrolled in the class.
“In classic Marine Corps fashion, day one featured a PT test at 6,600 feet — pull-ups, planks and a three-mile run,” Wells said. At 51, Wells did not finish first in the race this time. “But I came fifth and beat Rangers and two of the Seals,” he said.
On the third day, the entire class was moved out of the barracks in response to more students showing symptoms of COVID. Students were forced to pitch tents and isolate themselves in teams of four. “We had to shovel snow to set up tents,” Wells said. “That first night in the tent was miserable with the temperature dropping to 9 degrees Fahrenheit and I foolishly left my second sleeping bag in the barracks.”
Over the next few days, instead of lectures in a classroom, students learned about altitude sickness and hypothermia on dry-erase boards stuck in the snow.
The morning of the fifth day began with the “hypothermia laboratory”. The evening before, the students swallowed pellets containing a wireless thermometer and, after being attached to skin temperature probes, dove through the ice into a pool where they had to remain in the water until the chin for 10 minutes.
“I volunteered for a research protocol where you couldn’t exercise after getting out of the water,” Wells said. “Instead, you got into your sleeping bag and passively warmed up while being watched. I shivered like a jackhammer for 25 minutes.
The last two weeks of the course were spent in the field at approximately 9,000 feet elevation. Field scenarios included repeatedly rushing to locate and dig up buried avalanche markers, wrapping and pulling student “victims” in litter sleds, and using ropes to lift and lower litter sleds on steep slopes.
One night was a survival night where pairs of students were given a single MRE and had to make an improvised shelter and start a fire.
The latest field exercise involved instructors firing pyrotechnics to simulate incoming artillery and moving several patients through difficult terrain for most of the day, including setting up warming stations along the evacuation route. injuried people.
“Despite COVID, they finally got us back into the barracks, and that bunk bed mattress felt like sleeping in a five-star hotel every time we came back from the field,” Wells said.
Apart from the losses due to COVID, all students passed the written exam, the knot test and the field exercise.
Marine Corps Lt. Nicholas Roberts, the officer in charge of the course, said he was impressed with Wells’ performance during the tough training.
“Dr. Wells brought considerable medical experience to the course which he shared with the other students, for the benefit of the whole class,” he said. “Dr. Wells was always at the forefront, pulling the most weight and contributing more physically than most. The cadre of instructors were very impressed with his medical and physical performance.”
He added that Wells completing the two courses 18 years apart is a motivation for others in the medical field.
“There is no doubt that Dr. Wells’ dedication to wilderness medicine throughout his long military career is impressive and encouraging for young wilderness doctors,” he said.