The Peshmerga needs all the first aid it can get
by KEVIN KNODELL
The Peshmerga have a first aid problem. A big one. Short on doctors, field medics and basic supplies, the Iraqi-Kurdish fighting force has struggled to render life-saving treatment to its troops on the battlefield.
On June 22, British Defense Minister Michael Fallon announced that the British military would donate first-aid equipment to the Kurdistan Regional Government. “The supplies will consist of items such as tourniquets, bandage kits and dressings for wounds and will fill a significant gap in their resources,” Fallon wrote in a statement submitted to Parliament.
This package includes £600,000 worth of supplies, though Fallon’s statement noted “this may change dependent on the need of the KRG.”
To be sure, the Peshmerga isn’t totally bereft of medical aid. During the summer of 2014, War Is Boring visited the Shorsh military hospital near the Kurdish city of Sulaymaniah. We talked to Hiwa Hussein Rassul, a wounded Peshmerga trooper who was sprayed with shrapnel after an Islamic State bomb exploded underneath his truck.
Despite grievous wounds, he was lucky. Two of his comrades weren’t. Kurdish doctors are more than capable of saving lives, but that’s only assuming the wounded make it to the hospital.
That’s a challenge for Kurdish troops fighting in northern Iraq. Unlike Western armies, they have practically no medevac helicopters and usually have to move their wounded by land. That often means bumpy rides in the back of cars across rugged terrain to the nearest hospital.
That can make it hard to administer life-saving treatment within the “golden hour,” when the chance of saving someone’s life is highest.
When Islamic State withdraws from territory, the group typically leaves behind booby traps and snipers. Explosives play a huge role in the militants’ tactics, often as tools for wounding and surprising their enemies before launching vicious ambushes.
Improvised explosives account for the majority of injuries and fatalities for Peshmerga troops — between 70–80 percent according to some estimates.
“The fighters had no idea how to stop bleeding,” one German adviser told War Is Boring during a training exercise in March. “If they’re injured they just throw the person in the back of a car and hope for the best.”
The Peshmerga have a reputation for being brave, and with the help of coalition air power have regained more ground — and with greater haste — than most other Iraqi factions. But despite the Kurds’ successes on the battlefield they are far from a modern fighting force.
Just a few decades ago, they were mostly rag-tag bands of mountain guerrillas. The transition from rebel to soldier has at times been challenging. They struggle with logistics and wield aging, antiquated weapons. It’s no surprise that first aid has been a weak point.
They do have some trained medics, but have struggled to train enough to meet demand while soldiers are needed in the field.
Coalition advisers in Kurdistan have made combat medicine a key part of their tactical training programs — a reflection of a revolution in casualty care during the past decade. In 2003, coalition troops in Iraq often went into battle without tourniquets. Today it’s the opposite. Abd NATO soldiers now carry hemostatic dressings, which promote blood clotting, far more often than they used to. They learned the hard way.
Military advisers are not the only people helping out. The CNS Foundation — a non-profit organization that provides first aid to women and children in rural communities — has also been lending its staff to help train the Peshmerga and deliver supplies at facilities near the front line.
The Kurds’ have essentially been in a stand-off with Islamic State since a major Peshmerga offensive in January. The Kurds now occupy most of the land widely considered to be within their historic borders, and the fighters seem to have little interest in pushing further.
There has been rumors of the Peshmerga joining the battle to liberate Mosul when — or if — the Iraqi army is able to lead an offensive, but many Kurdish leaders seem hesitant to risk their fighters’ lives for a mostly Arab city.
But that doesn’t mean the war in the north has gone quiet. The back-and-forth sniping and shelling along the lines makes for an incredibly deadly situation.
More medical supplies could go a long way toward saving lives.