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From left, first row, former Morgan County Revenue Commissioner Charles Howard, Korea; Larry Sepanski, Korea; second row, George Mills, World War II; Becky Burney, Desert Storm; James Walker, Vietnam; at top, Russell Oden, Operation Iraqi Freedom.
Daily Photo illustration by Laura Taylor
From left, first row, former Morgan County Revenue Commissioner Charles Howard, Korea; Larry Sepanski, Korea; second row, George Mills, World War II; Becky Burney, Desert Storm; James Walker, Vietnam; at top, Russell Oden, Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Honoring those who served
Looking after warriors
World War II sparked upgrade in medicines, treatment of soldiers

By Ronnie Thomas · 340-2438

Army medics and Navy corpsmen injected pain-killing morphine and life-giving plasma to soldiers on the battlefields of World War II.

As the war waged and the numbers of wounded and dead soared, scientists searched for improved treatments. They introduced the so-called miracle drugs, the sulfas and penicillin.

In 1945, during the last days of the four-year struggle, they developed a better blood substitute, serum albumin.

When America goes to war, it aims deadly force at the enemy, while fighting a rear action to save soldiers’ lives. From World War II, to the streets of Baghdad and mountains of Afghanistan, that rear action has delivered. Soldiers are alive today who would have died in World War II.

Dr. Jeff Kerby, a trauma surgeon at The University of Alabama Hospital at Birmingham, said some of the biggest medical advancements from World War II to Iraq were not necessarily medications.

“It was the ability to evacuate patients back to higher levels of care,” said Kerby, a trauma surgeon with the Air Force from 1999 to 2003.

He noted the quick transfer of wounded soldiers by helicopter to a Mobile Army Surgical Hospital. The Army first deployed MASH units in Korea in 1950.

“During World War II, the transport was so long, someone who had a penetrating injury might have bled to death in the field,” Kerby said. “And even if he had made it to a hospital, they might not have had all the resources they needed for immediate care.”

Kerby said dressings the military use today — such as homeostatic bandages — can help with blood loss.

“But it starts with the initial care of the patient and builds on advances we had in Korea and Vietnam, getting him out of a hostile environment and back to the hospital,” he said.

The advances continued into Iraq. Kerby said one of the concepts the military is still sharpening began in 1990-91 with Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

Becky Burney of Town Creek was there, on the Saudi-Iraqi border. She was a captain in the Alabama Army National Guard with the 109th Evac Hospital First Detachment of Huntsville.

“When the countdown to the war started, we stationed a lot of our medical assets directly south of Baghdad. We were mobile, and could break down and move up if needed,” said Burney, 51, a nurse at Parkway Medical Center. “There were two other hospitals nearby. When we set up, we didn’t realize that this would, thankfully, be such a quick war.”

Burney said her unit didn’t treat many trauma cases, the largest influx being burn victims.

“We had a mass casualty, a group of about 20 that a Chinook brought in after their convoy was fired on,” she said. “As soon as they came in to us to be stabilized, our logistics people were already getting transportation for them to Landstul, Germany.”

Kerby said since Desert Storm, medical capabilities have become more modular so smaller units can move in more quickly.

“Before, when we deployed a theater hospital, we had to go together at one time. Now we can have a presence early on,” he said. “We can bring in more modulars and build in the medical enterprise as the need arises. Basically, we have developed mobile forward surgical teams.”

Kerby said that in the Air Force, the team consists of five people — a general surgeon, orthopedic surgeon, anesthesiologist, emergency medical physician and an operating room technician.

“We could basically take everything we needed to make up an operating room on our backpacks,” he said. “We had limited capability, but we were in the mix early. We took the concept from an idea to actual implementation in Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.”

Kerby’s team was among about 600 troops that went into the Philippines in January 2002. The Abu Sayyaf guerrillas, linked to al-Qaida, had gone on a rampage and kidnapped two American missionaries, a husband and wife. She survived.

“It was quite a switch from the past, on the number of personnel and the amount of equipment it would have taken to get a fully operational MASH unit in there,” he said. “Now, we’re smaller, more portable and can really be on the first plane out.”

Trauma systems

Kerby said that operating today in Iraq are what doctors in the United States call trauma systems. He said one in Birmingham covers a six-county area. He said the basic idea is to get the patient to the right facility for care.

“A doctor I knew when I was in the service is still in the military and is back and forth to Iraq,” Kerby said. “He’s come to UAB and given lectures on some of the concepts they’re now using.”

No doubt, World War II veteran George F. Mills, 86, of Decatur would be amazed. He was a sergeant with the 28th Infantry Division, 109th Infantry Regiment, when the Germans captured him Dec. 18, 1944, during the Battle of the Bulge. Although wounded by shrapnel from a bazooka, he endured the life of a prisoner of war until April 13, 1945.

Like Burney and Mills, hundreds of other local and area veterans are taking a bow Sunday on their day.

Charles Howard, 77, of Decatur and Larry Sepanski, 75, of Trinity served in Korea with the Army National Guard’s 1343rd Combat Engineers, with companies in Decatur, Hartselle and Athens.

Howard, who was Morgan County tax collector for six years and revenue commissioner for 15 years, arrived in Korea in February 1951 and was discharged April 1952. He was a radio operator.

The Army drafted Sepanski in 1952 from his home in Chicago. He was assigned to Charley Company of Hartselle as a communications chief.

“While in Korea, I didn’t make connection with the local guys because most had already rotated home,” he said. “I didn’t even know the company I was in was in Hartselle, or the town was even down here.”

Sepanski was in Korea from March 1953 to June 1954. After he retired from LTV Steel in Chicago and later from Holy Cross Hospital, he moved to Trinity in 1994.

“It’s like God brought me down here,” he said.

Lt. Col. James Walker of Tanner served with the Military Assistance Command in the Cholon section of Saigon, South Vietnam, for a year, starting in 1968.

Walker, 61, was also in Tongduchong, South Korea, in 1976, when North Korean soldiers hacked two American officers to death at the demilitarized zone.

“I was about 25 miles away at that time with the 2nd Infantry Division,” he said. “I later moved up to within 10 miles of the DMZ.”

Including 13 years as senior army instructor at Austin High School, Walker has 40 years in the military.

Russell Oden, 32, of Falkville, a specialist and tank gunner in Iraq in 2003, was in the Army about four years, serving with Big Red 1 — 1st Brigade, 63rd Armor Division.

He is a disabled veteran. He lost most of his hearing in his right ear and suffered damage to his left knee.

“I just wish not to talk about how I was injured,” he said. “I still have flashbacks.”

He also suffers from post-traumatic disorder and sees a psychiatrist.

“But I work full time and go to school full time,” he said. “I try to stay busy.”

Oden said he is proud of his service, calling it one of the greatest things he ever did besides marrying his wife.

“There’s a difference between the military and the civilian world, and it’s the camaraderie,” he said. “They end up saving your life, or you saving theirs.”

American war deaths, wounded since 1941

  • World War II (1941-45)

    Deaths, 405,399; Wounded, 671,846

  • Korean War (1950-53)

    Deaths, 36,574; Wounded, 103,284

  • Vietnam War (1964-75)

    Deaths, 58,209; Wounded, 153,303

  • Desert Shield/Desert Storm (1990-91)

    Deaths, 382; Wounded, 467

  • Operation Enduring Freedom, Afghan War (Oct. 7, 2001, to present)

    Deaths, 460; Wounded, 1,762

  • Operation Iraqi Freedom (March 19, 2003, to present)

    Deaths, 3,860; Wounded, 28,451

    Department of Veterans Affairs

    Decatur parade Monday

    Monday’s annual Veterans Day Parade begins at 9:30 a.m., at Second Avenue and Gordon Drive Southwest. The route will follow Second Avenue to Lee Street to Bank Street and end at the Old State Bank, where the Combined Patriotic Organizations of Morgan County will have a Veterans Day program. Lt. Col. Dwight Jett, a Decatur attorney and school board member, will be parade grand marshal.

    Ronnie Thomas

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