Underwater Medicine specialists adapt for desert role

Published on Royal Australian Navy (author), SGT Ricky Fuller (photographer)

Topic(s): HMAS Penguin, Submarine and Underwater Medicine Unit (SUMU)

Lieutenant Commander Gavin Milkins (right) and Leading Seaman Peter Gough conduct training at the Role 2 Enhanced NATO Medical Treatment Facility at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan. (photo: SGT Ricky Fuller)
Lieutenant Commander Gavin Milkins (right) and Leading Seaman Peter Gough conduct training at the Role 2 Enhanced NATO Medical Treatment Facility at Hamid Karzai International Airport, Kabul, Afghanistan.

As part of the Australian Defence Force’s ongoing commitment to the war in Afghanistan, Royal Australian Navy underwater medicine clinicians and doctors are deployed to this arid and rugged landscape, far away from the oceans where they usually ply their trade.

Over the last four years, 11 members of this close knit and specialised community have worked across a number of locations in roles ranging from pre-hospital care through to tertiary hospital-based services.

Underwater medicine clinicians are medics drawn from the Royal Australian Navy and the Australian Army, who receive additional specialised training in diving medicine. 

These clinicians provide care in isolated and remote settings, often without clinical supervision at hand.

To provide this capability, underwater medicine clinicians are qualified in a range of critical care skills such as advanced life support, surgical procedures and airway management.

The changing face of modern warfare, combined with emerging clinical science has driven a change in the education of underwater medicine clinicians. Tactical combat casualty care and operational planning have been recent additions to the curriculum that serves these personnel well in war zones like Afghanistan.

Beyond the traditional setting of providing operational healthcare to divers, underwater medicine clinicians are now using these clinical dexterities to treat battle casualties in less traditional domains.

Petty Officer Underwater Medicine Clinician Heath Winter has just completed a deployment to Afghanistan, where he worked for the NATO Special Forces Joint Task Force.

Petty Officer Winter said his training as both an underwater medicine clinician and a paramedic enabled him to work at the tip of the spear, providing pre-hospital care in a high-functioning combat unit.

“The experience and skills I have gained in the last 15 years have enabled me to work independently in a high threat environment,” Petty Officer Winter said. 

“This has been the best deployment and I would encourage any Navy or Army medic to consider a career in underwater medicine if this type of work appeals to them,” he said. 

Chief Petty Officer Underwater Medicine Clinician Zamri Burns is preparing to return to the Middle East, this time to Afghanistan.

Chief Petty Officer Burns said this deployment would be unlike any of his experiences on previous operations.

“I‘ll be in charge of a small medical capability and this comes with increased responsibility.

“The training I have undertaken thus far and my tertiary studies have all played a part in me getting to this stage in my career,” Chief Petty Officer Burns said. 

The Underwater Medicine Clinicians’ Course is held annually in HMAS Penguin and is advertised by both Navy and Army career management agencies.

Chief Petty Officer Burns has been an instructor on the course and said the training it offered was first class.

“We put a lot of effort into preparing our students for employment at sea, ashore and with the special operations command,” he said.

Petty Officer Winter has also been an instructor on the Underwater Medicine Clinicians’ Course and also speaks highlight of the training it provides. 

“This really is one of the most advanced and specialised courses a medic can complete in the Australian Defence Force.

“This sort of work demands the highest quality of graduate and we have all delivered to that standard since 1967,” Petty Officer Winter said.