HURLBURT FIELD, FL (24th SOW) – Four hundred fourteen trauma evaluations, 141 gunshot wounds, 270 blast injuries, 102 damage-control resuscitations, 51 chest tubes, 21 intubations and 15 urgent surgical operations…for some this may be a list of numbers and medical jargon.
For others, it meant life instead of death.
This is the direct impact Lt. Col. (Dr.) Benjamin Mitchell, an emergency medicine physician assigned to a Special Operations Surgical Team, had as the primary care provider during deployments in support of operations Inherent Resolve, Resolute Support and Enduring Freedom.
Special Operations Surgical Teams are Air Force teams of mobile surgical specialists with advanced medical and tactics training, employed in austere or hostile areas where there is little to no other surgical support. These teams train to save lives within the golden hour, and are placed close to the battle outside of any established healthcare facilities—reducing time between injury and care.
“Battlefield surgical capabilities are decisive to mission success, and Mitchell is absolutely representative of the professionalism and skill required for the mission,” said Lt. Col. Travis Woodworth, the 720th Special Tactics Group deputy commander. “When you combine SOST’s close proximity to combat and crisis with the ability to conduct high-level surgical operations, it does more than save lives: it builds relationships with the local population, combats Da’esh rhetoric and military effects, and provides the ground forces psychological stability, knowing they will be taken care of quickly if they’re wounded.”
The six-member SOST is composed of an emergency physician, general surgeon, nurse anesthetist, critical care nurse, surgical technician and respiratory therapist, and provides four unique medical capabilities: advanced trauma resuscitation, tactical damage control surgery, post-op critical care and critical care evaluation.
Now, Mitchell is being recognized by the Jackson Foundation with the 2017 Heroes of Military Medicine Award at an annual awards banquet, May 4. The annual award is given to active-duty military medical professionals — one recipient each from the Army, Navy and Air Force.
During his most recent deployment to an austere location in support of Operation Inherent Resolve, he treated multiple patients at a field casualty collection point while there was an ongoing mortar attack occurring within 250 meters of them.
“Col. Mitchell is a natural leader who has been instrumental in shaping the future of medicine within the Special Tactics community,” said Lt. Col. Richard French, the SOST commander. “His decisive and intuitive leadership has forged strong bonds with those who served under him — through these efforts, Col. Mitchell has raised the bar for mission success and positive patient outcomes.”
The Heroes of Military Medicine Awards honors outstanding contributions by individuals who have distinguished themselves through excellence and selfless dedication to advancing military medicine and enhancing the lives and health of our nation’s wounded, ill and injured service members, veterans, and civilians.
As far as advancements in medicine, Mitchell personally spearheaded a first for deployed medical techniques: the use of a resuscitative endovascular balloon occlusion of the aorta. REBOA is a technique used for patients rapidly bleeding to death from injuries to their chest, abdomen or pelvis—essentially stopping all blood flow temporarily so surgeons can address the most traumatic wounds.
In a small, concrete house operating with tools from their rucksacks, he and his SOST used four ER-REBOA catheters on four seriously injured patients with a 100 percent survival rate. This was the first time in the Defense Department this was done outside of a hospital.
“In SOST, you get to work with some of the best medical care providers in the military,” said Mitchell. “We operate at a high level of readiness and focus, and my team reflects the highest professionalism under extreme conditions.”
When he wasn’t deployed, Mitchell sharpened his medical skills in and outside the hospital. He led an 18-person team at the University of Alabama level-one trauma center, and served on a humanitarian mission to Guatemala, where he and his team treated 3,000 patients in 10 days.
“He is an extremely driven leader; constantly mission focused and ensures his team is prepared to face whatever comes our way,” said Capt. Cade Reedy, who works with Mitchell at University of Alabama at Birmingham and on his SOST. “His medical knowledge, compassion, teaching ability and calmness under pressure are exceptional.”
Mitchell specifically remembers one moment when a local fighter arrived at their makeshift operation room, shot through the collar bone and bleeding to death. Their team was short on blood due to the constant flow of patients arriving at the casualty collection point, so Reedy donated his own blood to save him.
“Our team was so well-trained and focused; we controlled the bleeding, got him in surgery and saved his life,” said Mitchell. “Ten days later that guy walked into our tent and thanked our team … it was incredible and rewarding.”
For Mitchell, the award is humbling, but credits his team with keeping their composure during chaotic and stressful situations.
“This last deployment took a lot out of my team physically and emotionally because of the high level of casualties we saw,” said Mitchell. “I am really proud of my team. The professionalism and courage those guys showed, pulling off a stellar mission and saving a lot of lives.”
Mitchell’s parents, Mark and Cathy, say his humility cuts through the accolades.
“He is a very humble person and rarely talks about his accomplishments, but does talk about how important it is that those serving in the military receive the highest medical care possible,” said Mark Mitchell. “He also talks about how crucial all of his team members are in providing that care… He has touched so many lives and we know that he loves what he is doing.”
A perfect example: Mitchell requested that his teammates be publicly recognized for their incredible dedication and hard work during the last deployment, citing that none of the successes are his alone.
Everything that happened required a highly-skilled team of specialists who could work under intense pressure in a combat zone.