A one-of-its-kind military program lets servicemembers far from the battlefields help their wounded comrades by forward-deploying their own blood.
More is always needed. There’s steady demand in both Afghanistan and Iraq, where U.S. medical units treat both American and coalition casualties.
The need here may soon grow, as more aggressive fighting is expected in Afghanistan this spring.
“The No. 1 thing people can do to save lives when they’re not in theater is to give blood,” said Col. Walter M. “Sparky” Matthews, a flight surgeon and commander of the U.S. military’s medical task force here in Afghanistan. “It’s better than any care package.”
Despite advances that help stop hemorrhaging, such as wider use of tourniquets, bleed-outs remain the leading cause of preventable death in combat, officials said. Dozens, if not hundreds of pints of blood, can be needed to keep a single patient alive during the treatment of severe battlefield wounds.
Much of that blood comes from servicemembers themselves via the Armed Services Blood Program, which collects it at 20 donor centers and mobile drives throughout the U.S., Europe, Japan and Guam.
Frequent shipments arrive via a regional hub in the Central Command area of operations, said Capt. William Ceballos, head of the Fort Bragg, N.C.-based 432nd Blood Support Detachment, deployed here to bank blood and distribute it to medical teams throughout the country.
“Let’s say that you’re in the U.S. … and you donate blood today,” Ceballos said. For that pint-sized unit to be tested, boxed up and shipped to Afghanistan where it could save a life, “we could be looking at three days.”
The blood program traces its roots to World War II and remains indispensable, Matthews said. Modern medical advances haven’t come up with an effective synthetic replacement for blood.
But at least one key challenge remains.
“Our biggest problem is (getting) donors,” said Col. Jennifer Gurney, a trauma surgeon in Iraq.
Some servicemembers give to the American Red Cross believing it goes to troops downrange, officials said, but only donations to the Armed Services Blood Program go specifically to military facilities.
Saving servicemembers and children alike
Just down the road from Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany last month, more than a dozen people trickled in during lunchtime to donate at the Kaiserslautern Military Community Center on Ramstein Air Base.
“This blood is going right over to the trauma shelf on Landstuhl, it’s going downrange to combat operations,” said Colleen Urban, donor recruiter for the blood program’s lone European center, which holds up to three mobile drives each week to support U.S. European Command, Africa Command and CENTCOM.
Staff Sgt. Kameron Ussery, an aircraft mechanic, had personal reasons to give. His brother, a Marine infantryman, had just deployed to the Middle East.
“I want to know at least some of the blood that can match his is out there somewhere,” he said.
Donated blood helps troops and anyone else treated at military medical facilities, like family members.
“We actually had a donor (who) gave on Monday — their blood was used on Friday to save an infant” at Landstuhl’s neonatal intensive care unit, Urban said.
Each week, she aims to collect at least 100 units, each of which can save up to three lives. It’s good for 46 days, so supplies must constantly be refreshed.
Commands could do more to help by sponsoring drives, offering incentives like extra time off or at least allowing personnel time away from work to give.
“Our mission is their mission,” she said. “Our blood is from the military for the military.”
Some donors were unaware of the program until happening upon a drive. Some only heard of it recently, like Senior Master Sgt. Brenton Sampson, who has donated three times since learning about the program six months ago.
“It goes straight downrange, so I try to help as best as I can,” he said. “I wish more people would come out to support this.”
A bomb loader, Sampson deployed to Al Udeid Air Base in 2010, where he armed F-15 Strike Eagles for close air support missions. Giving blood is just another way to support his fellow servicemembers in the fight.
His colleague Master Sgt. Alan Lewis has given every 56 days, as frequently as allowed, ever since he learned the program needed his rare Type AB-negative blood about eight years ago.
Lewis said his next donation will be plasma to be freeze-dried, a way to get it into the field more easily without need of refrigeration. It can be donated more frequently and lasts longer.
“In my job, I’m aircraft maintenance, so we’re not going to be on the front lines,” Lewis said. “We support our brothers who are in the fight — both through aircraft and the blood program.”
How to give blood
Find a blood drive near you and make an appointment to donate. Be sure to hydrate and eat before your appointment.
Most healthy adults are eligible to give blood, but some may be denied from donating temporarily, indefinitely or permanently for multiple reasons.
To find out more about eligibility requirements, group appointments or hosting a blood drive, visit www.militaryblood.dod.mil.
How to help if you can’t give blood:
Encourage others to donate.
Accompany a friend to a blood drive for moral support.
Donate baked goods to support a local drive.
Volunteer to watch children for someone who wants to donate.
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