As the helicopter lands in an open field, combat medics jump out amid the sound of gunfire.
In two-person teams, they sprint toward 180-pound dummies to treat their simulated wounds. As discerning evaluators watch, the medics then drag the dummies on a litter through thick Texas brush to a cliff, where they quickly, but carefully, rappel their patients 25 feet down into a dry creek bed.
They then rush to another field to load their patients onto a helicopter, thus ending a mock combat medical evacuation that took place over a half mile of rugged terrain.
After ascending back up the cliff, the medics hurry to their next timed event, a 4-mile trek in full combat gear through the brush. So went the first portion of battle drills Tuesday as part of the grueling 72-hour Best Medic Competition.
Held annually in one form or another since the 1980s, the competition tests Army medics from across the country with various tasks that require feats of physical and emotional strength and call upon their critical thinking skills.
This year, more than 30 teams are competing to determine the Army’s best combat medics. Many of the tasks they must undertake during the competition are unknown to the competitors until they come across them in the field.
“We’re trying to incorporate adaptive thinking processes into their decisions,” said Master Sgt. Mike Eldred, the architect of the competition. “It adds the ability for them to be tested on how they think and react in a complex world.”
Representing the 1st Cavalry Division, Sgt. Nicholas Santos said his team has a home-field advantage since they’re coming from Fort Hood, about a two-hour drive away.
“We’re already acclimated,” said Santos, 29, of Bethlehem, Pennsylvania. “We know the weather and terrain out here. We also don’t have any sleep deprivation. Some of these guys are coming from Italy and Germany.”
With high temperatures expected to be in the mid-80s for the competition, some medics who traveled from colder climates are having to adjust quickly.
“I feel bad about the Alaska guys. This is going to be hot for them,” Santos said, smiling.
Santos has been preparing for the competition with his teammate, Sgt. Edwin Luchendo, for the past three months.
“We expect to be tired, but we also expect to push through it,” said Luchendo, 32, of Nairobi, Kenya. “I’m a very competitive guy. Every chance I get to compete, I’ll get on it.”
While there’s no lack of endurance among the medics, they could still face health concerns if they fail to pace themselves as they tackle miles-long road marches, mock firefights, heavy lifting, trauma tables, and marksmanship trials.
“This will be dangerous,” Eldred told the medics in a briefing before the strenuous contest, during much of which the teams would compete alone in vast training areas.
“Please make sure you pay attention to what you’re doing,” he advised them. “Don’t expect us to run around behind you with baby powder. It’s going to be up to you to take care of yourself.”
After the briefing, Eldred revealed the key characteristic an organizer like him should have when running a contest of this magnitude.
“You have to be a little sadistic in creating competitions,” he said, laughing. “Because if you don’t make it challenging, then why even have it?”
“It’s not that I want them to be in pain,” he continued, “but the last thing I want is for someone to walk away from this contest and say that it was nothing. I want them to be challenged.”
The winning team will receive their bragging rights during an awards ceremony Friday at Fort Sam Houston.