FORT BRAGG, N.C. — To many people, the image of an Army combat medic is one of a soldier in a vintage World War II movie braving whizzing shrapnel and heavy machine-gun fire to patch up the wounded and tuck in the dead.
But an elite group of Special Forces medics here and around the world continues to reinvent the term, with the help of knowledge being gained from the victims of urban combat and from other critical injuries at Baltimore's Shock-Trauma Unit.
In peacetime, these highly trained Green Beret sergeants venture with small so-called military A-teams to the far reaches of the globe to teach the application of modern medicine to the people of underdeveloped nations.
Some of the medics have performed surgery in the most primitive conditions; others have won hearts and minds in Third World nations where career diplomats wouldn't get their striped suits dusty.
In war, these A-team members can build a counterinsurgency force or parachute behind enemy lines on high-risk missions to conduct sabotage, kidnap critical enemy personnel or kill. They can be machines -- as the 18 Medals of Honor earned by Green Berets during the war in Southeast Asia can attest.
And if the crisis in the Middle East turns to war, these shadow warriors will again be hard at work.
Some soldiers at Fort Bragg, home of the Special Forces, say with a wink that Green Berets were on the ground equipping and training Kuwaiti resistance fighters soon after Saddam Hussein's invasion and currently are conducting "sneak and peek" operations in Iraq, gathering intelligence and identifying Iraqi assets.
In a future combat zone, military doctors will tend to the wounded and dying in evacuation hospitals. And the Special Forces medics -- dubbed 18 Deltas in military jargon -- will be in harm's way attempting to save lives or engaged in actual combat.
"It may sound corny," says a Special Forces officer, "but the 18 Deltas are soldiers with one finger on the trigger and another on somebody's pulse."
In January, these sergeants will begin entering a training program quietly conducted at Shock-Trauma over the past 36 months by the Maryland Institute for Emergency Medical Services and the Army Special Operations Command, of Fort Bragg.
It is bizarre but true that urban violence has given the Army such realistic conditions for training. In a report earlier this year, the Senate Judiciary Committee in Washington said that turf battles between heavily armed drug gangs are leading the United States toward the highest murder rate ever.
And Baltimore has had its share of such violence. As of today, 258 people have been killed in 1990, compared with 236 at this time last year. Baltimore, many police homicide investigators claim, would have significantly more killings if it weren't for the life-saving work accomplished at Shock-Trauma.
"I've seen people come out of there who were dead when I saw them in the street," says one veteran detective. "Three weeks later, the shooting victim is calling me for his clothes. They have kept the murder rate down in Baltimore City. Miracles are commonplace up there."
So far, only Army doctors and physician assistants have been through the training program at Shock-Trauma. They have, of course, relayed some of the knowledge to the Green Beret medics, but starting in January those sergeants will be able to go themselves.
The Army's 650 designated 18 Delta medics have been described as some of the brightest, best-trained people in the U.S. armed forces. Besides knowing medicine, they are skilled in veterinary care and basic dentistry, are multilingual and are dTC cross-trained in several military skills ranging from weaponry to engineering.
Take Sgt. 1st Class John Mitchell, lately of missions to Africa, the Caribbean and the Middle East. Like all 18 Deltas, he can successfully diagnose a skin disease, extract or fill a tooth, treat an ailing water buffalo or close a soldier's bleeding vein under hostile conditions.
And he has a favorite story, a microcosm about what he and others like him do and why they do it.
"In the early '70s," he says, "Time magazine wrote a story about a Special Forces team that was working in a remote Laotian village. The infant child of the village chief was caught and swallowed by a very large constricting snake and everyone thought the baby was dead.
"But the medic knew about the dive reflex, or the natural human mechanism where blood leaves the extremities and retreats to the heart and brain. Well, the medic found the snake, cut it open and pulled the baby out, revived it and handed it over to the chief. The medic was the biggest hero to ever hit that region and we got tremendous cooperation from the population because of that."
Before they are assigned to Baltimore, sergeants like Mitchell must hold the necessary civilian credentials from the National Registry of Emergency Medical Technicians and will have met Maryland medical requirements.