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Health and Fitness

Medical Teams Take On The Gunpowder Challenge

Exercise simulates battlefield scenario to help prepare military medical students

Bullets are zooming past your head. The ground is shaking from the aftermath of bombs detonating. The deafening sounds of war make it hard to hear yourself think. Your most important weapon is not your rifle, but your medical kit.

Third year medical students at the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences (USUHS) are not your typical medical students. This is not your average medical school. These students are not only preparing to save lives in the hospital operating room but out on the battlefield as well.

Sixteen teams of uniformed medical students competed in the annual "Gunpowder Challenge". The challenge is a two-day field exercise designed to help medical students develop team-based military leadership, medical expertise, and team-building.

"The goals of the exercise were to develop team-based military and medical leadership, communication skills, and experience how stress affects performance during crisis situations," said Cmdr. James Palma, the Gunpowder Challenge officer in charge. "We are very proud of these students and their efforts over the past two days and we are happy that you are going to be the leaders of our military health care system in the future."

The first day of the challenge is spent in small groups rotating through four training stations that prepare them for the timed race on the second day. The four stations are an advanced trauma life-support scenario, improvisation, tactical combat casualty care, and bushmaster.

"It was really good to be able to go through all the exercises on the first day before the race," said Ensign Megan Ohmer, an USUHS student.

Having the ability to fail when nothing really terrible happens, learn from your mistakes, and then try again the next day to improve your performance was a valuable learning experience." - Ensign Ohmer


The advanced trauma life-support scenarios allow the students to practice skills such as placement of chest tubes and IVs using dummies.

In the tactical combat casualty care scenario, there is an active shooter who has shot and wounded a number of people before being killed. Students must use cut suits. Cut suits are human-worn simulators that allow cutting, suturing, IV insertion, chest tube placement and produce fake blood to make the scenario as realistic as possible.

"We got to take all the field knowledge we've learned and apply it in a real-world setting," said Ensign Yarrow Sheldon, Gunpowder Challenge participant. "These exercises allowed us to take our lessons out of the lecture hall and apply them in actual simulations."

The Operation Bushmaster Rehearsal of Concepts session is similar to a wargaming event. Two platoons at a time, in separate rooms, have sand tables with sophisticated props. They lay out the Bushmaster operation site and run through scenarios as if their platoon was responding, while rotating team roles. The Bushmaster training exercise concludes with a simulated convoy attack, resulting in mass casualties.

The improvisation exercise takes place in the woods behind the university. Students try to figure out ways to evacuate casualties using minimal equipment. The team must evacuate the casualties across a stream using a constructed rope bridge.
Collage of the Gunpowder Challenge


"I didn't really know what to expect from Gunpowder," said Sheldon. "It was great real-world experience where we got to practice all the things we've been taught."

The Gunpowder Challenge was named for the original training site, the Gunpowder Military Reservation in Baltimore. The site was not used in it's inaugural year because of heavy snow and the training was returned to the school's Bethesda, Maryland, campus, but the name stuck.

The Gunpowder Challenge adventure race incorporates 16 skills stations that include mass casualty triaging, identifying a traumatic brain injury, a litter obstacle course, a trauma ultrasound, casualty evacuation, improvisation, breaking bad news to patients, and cut suits.

The course is divided into several zones with an average of four stations per zone. It is an all-out race to the finish. Students must complete each station within a specified time limit to earn points. They must complete at least two stations in each zone to finish the race. If a station involves a leadership role, each member of the team will take a turn in that role. The students have approximately 5 hours and 30 minutes to complete the race. To make it even more interesting, the students are not in the same groups they were in on day one, which forces them to communicate and work together.

"The hardest part was being thrown into a new team on the day of the exercise," said Ensign Kathleen Kramer. "We had to start all over from scratch and be flexible which was definitely a challenge."