Five members of an Air Force Special Operations Surgical Team received Bronze Star medals Tuesday for their work during a 2016 deployment to an undisclosed location in the Middle East.
The airmen were honored during a ceremony at the University of Alabama at Birmingham Hospital.
Emergency medicine physician Lt. Col. Ben Mitchell, nurse anesthetist Lt. Col. Matthew Uber, surgeon Maj. Justin Manley, and emergency room nurse Capt. Cade Reedy of the 720th Operations Support Squadron received Bronze Stars for working a casualty collection point under austere and dangerous conditions.
A few kilometers from the front lines, they treated civilians and local fighters wounded in the fight against the Islamic State over the course of two weeks during the summer of 2016, according to an Air Force press release.
Maj. Jonathan Chin, another SOST airman who was on a different deployment, also received a Bronze Star.
The awards are the military’s fourth-highest combat medal for heroism.
Mitchell, Uber, Manley and Reedy ― along with emergency room nurse Maj. Nelson Pacheco and respiratory therapist Technical Sgt. Richard Holguin, both of whom have already received their Bronze Stars ― treated 750 patients, responded to 19 mass-casualty events, conducted 16 life-saving surgeries, and treated victims of a chemical weapon attack.
SOST teams are composed of active-duty Air Force medical professionals, including a trauma surgeon, emergency physician, nurse anesthetist, surgical scrub tech, critical-care nurse and a respiratory tech. During combat operations, the teams provide far-forward medical care.
“A SOST is a mobile surgical team with advanced medical and tactics training which can deploy to austere or hostile areas to provide surgical support,” said Lt. Col. Ben Mitchell, SOST leader and emergency room medical doctor, in the release. “Our mission is to provide early, potentially life-saving surgery to wounded American military personnel or to the local population.”
The airmen received their medals at UAB Hospital, where they are assigned as fully accredited staff who can treat patients in the emergency room and perform surgeries. UAB is one of the first civilian hospitals to host a SOST.
“Military hospitals in the States typically don’t see a lot of trauma,” said Dr. Jeffrey Kerby, the director of the Division of Acute Care Surgery at UAB, in the release. “For a medical team to keep their skills sharp, they need a more challenging environment.”
“We are the only adult Level 1 Trauma Center within a 150-mile radius. We see a great many penetrating trauma cases here from gunshot wounds, stabbings or car crashes. Unfortunately, we are a good place to hone trauma skills,” Kirby said.
UAB hosts three, six-man SOST teams, who rotate on deployments that usually last about four months, followed by 11 to 12 months at the host medical facility.
SOST airmen also instruct residents and medical students at UAB on the lessons learned from battlefield medicine.
“The tourniquet is a great example of how military medicine can change civilian practice,” Kerby said. “Tourniquets had fallen out of favor until recent battlefield experiences re-affirmed their utility in stopping major bleeds following severe trauma. SOST is now helping us re-introduce this lifesaving technique through our Stop the Bleed campaign.”
Kyle Rempfer is an editor and reporter who has covered combat operations, criminal cases, foreign military assistance and training accidents. Before entering journalism, Kyle served in U.S. Air Force Special Tactics and deployed in 2014 to Paktika Province, Afghanistan, and Baghdad, Iraq.