Military medicine

Last updated: February 4, 2022

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Military medicine includes clinical medicine, i.e., health care provided to service members and their families corresponding to civilian health care services, and operational medicine, i.e., health care for service members on deployment in theaters of operation. The Military Health System (MHS) represents the cornerstone of clinical military medicine. It is designed to ensure that all active duty and reserve component personnel stay healthy and operational and that health care providers are properly trained to support the operational forces. Key elements of the MHS include TRICARE (a health care program designed to provide integrated health care through military treatment facilities [MFT] and civilian providers to eligible beneficiaries), expeditionary care, a joint staff surgeon, the Defense Health Agency, and the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences. Combat injuries are treated according to the Tactical Combat Casualty Care (TCCC) protocol developed to reduce preventable deaths during tactical operations by increasing the probability of casualties reaching an MTF. TCCC involves 3 consecutive phases: care under fire (CUF), tactical field care (TFC), and tactical evacuation care (TEC). CUF mainly involves first response, especially stopping massive hemorrhage, returning fire, taking cover, and initiating the treatment of casualties. The TFC phase focuses on the treatment of casualties according to the MARCH acronym (Massive hemorrhage, Airway management, Respiration, Circulation, Head injury). Additional measures at a Casualty Collection Point (CCP) should be considered according to the PAWS acronym (Pain management, Antibiotics, Wound management, Splinting). The most common types of combat injuries are blast injuries, stab wounds, burns, and chemical injuries (e.g., nerve gas poisoning). Associated psychiatric conditions such as posttraumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are often chronic, requiring treatment long after deployment.

Military Health System (MHS) [1]

  • Overview
    • The Military Health System (MHS) is a federal health care program run by the United States Department of Defense (DOD).
    • The MHS is led by the office of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs under the Office of the Undersecretary of Defense for Personnel and Readiness.
  • Objectives
    • Ensuring that all active duty; and reserve component personnel; stay healthy and operational
    • Ensuring sure that active and reserve health care providers are well-trained and capable of supporting operational forces
    • Providing medical benefits (e.g., coverage of prescription drug costs, surgical procedures, and check-ups) to active duty personnel and military retirees (including their families)
  • Key elements [2]
    • TRICARE: a health care program designed to provide integrated health care through military treatment facilities and civilian providers to eligible beneficiaries, i.e., sponsors (e.g., active, reserve, and retired members of the armed forces) and their family members (i.e., spouses and children who are registered in the Defense Enrollment Eligibility Reporting System)
      • Approx. 9.6 million individuals receive benefits from the MHS. [3]
      • TRICARE offers different health care plans and benefits depending on various factors such as service status, residence, and duration of service.
      • Services and supplies that are considered nonessential for the treatment of a covered condition as well as those related to a noncovered condition or treatment, are excluded, e.g: [4]
        • Acupuncture
        • Homeopathic and herbal drugs, naturopathic care
        • Dyslexia treatment
    • Expeditionary care
      • A staff of medical professionals that ensures that the operational forces are healthy and ready to deploy
      • Designated medical professionals (e.g., combat medics) accompany the operational forces to provide help during battle
    • Military treatment facilities (MTF): 55 full-service hospitals and more than 370 clinics on military bases around the world
    • Joint staff surgeon: chief medical advisor tasked with the coordination of all necessary health service-related issues (e.g., force health protection, operational medicine)
    • Defense Health Agency
      • A combat support agency established in 2013 to provide integrated and efficient health services to the military
      • Services include developing health information technology systems, providing pharmacy and medical logistics, performing medical research, and operating TRICARE health benefits
    • Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences
      • Federal professions academy
      • No tuition, but graduates are obligated to serve
      • Emphasis on military health care and leadership

Veterans Health Administration (VHA) [5]

  • Overview
    • A nationalized healthcare program funded by the United States Department of Veterans Affairs (VA)
    • Led by the Under Secretary of the Veterans Affairs for Health
    • America's largest integrated health care system
    • Provides care to 9 million veterans annually
    • Unlike MHS facilities, all VHA health care facilities are government-owned and operated.
    • About 60% of all medical residents receive a part of their training in a VA hospital and/or medical research program.
  • Facilities
    • VA medical centers
    • Outpatient clinics
    • Community-based outpatient clinics
    • VA community living centers

Trauma care guidelines used during combat and established in three phases. The aim is to reduce preventable deaths in military personnel during tactical operations by implementing measures that increase the probability of a wounded soldier reaching an MTF.

Phase 1: care under fire (CUF)

Actions taken during tactical engagement under fire:

  1. Application of precise suppression fire by all personnel (incl. casualties, if capable)
  2. Continue tactical mission
  3. Take cover
  4. Treat casualties
    • Control hemorrhage
    • Massive extremity hemorrhage: apply combat tourniquet

Phase 2: tactical field care (TFC)

Actions taken when no longer under fire:

  1. Disarm casualties with altered mental status or if receiving ketamine or fentanyl
  2. First responders should follow the order of treatment itemized by the MARCH acronym:
  3. Additional measures should be considered at the Casualty Collection Point (CCP) according to the PAWS acronym:

Phase 3: tactical evacuation care (TEC)

  • Medical evacuation (MEDEVAC) and casualty evacuation (CASEVAC) via dedicated air and/or ground vehicles to the nearest MTF.
  • Continue interventions initiated during the evacuation or at the MTF.
  • Assess for and document additional life-threatening injuries, pain control, fluid resuscitation, and appropriate therapy.

Blast injuries [8]

  • Definition: complex physical trauma caused by an explosion; a common cause of mass casualty incidents
  • Etiology
    • High-order detonation
      • Examples: TNT, nitroglycerine, dynamite
      • Produce an explosion with a supersonic overpressurization shock wave
    • Low-order detonation
      • Examples: pipe bombs, gun powder, petrol bombs
      • Produce a subsonic explosion (no shock wave)
    • High-order and low-order explosives can produce blast wind (superheated air) that can cause additional injuries (e.g., incineration of flammable material).
  • Diagnostics
  • Management
    • For further information, see “Management of trauma patients” and articles on the specific injuries.
    • See also the specific injuries in the table below.
Overview of blast injuries
Type Primary Secondary Tertiary Quaternary
  • Injury caused by the effects of the overpressurization wave hitting the body (seen only in high-order explosives)
  • Injury caused by fragments of an explosive device or debris from an explosion
  • Depending on the type of ballistic material (e.g., glass, metal shrapnel), the injury can be blunt or penetrating.
  • Injury caused by being propelled against a stationary object by blast wind.
  • Depending on the type of stationary object, the injury can be blunt or penetrating.
  • Blast waves can cause structural collapse of buildings and lead to entrapment.
  • Any explosion-related
    injury, illness, or
    disease caused by a mechanism other than those underlying primary, secondary, and tertiary injuries (e.g., fire, smoke, toxins, radiation)


Stab wounds


  • See “Burns” for details.

Chemical injuries

Gulf War illness (GWI) [9]

  • Definition: a chronic, multisystem condition seen in veterans of the 1991 Gulf War
  • Epidemiology
    • Estimated to affect between 175,000 and 250,000 soldiers
    • More commonly seen in Army and Marine Corps veterans than in Navy or Air Force veterans
    • Of the 28 coalition forces, 27 reported cases of GWI in their troops.
  • Etiology
    • Not fully understood; exposure to multiple agents is likely
    • GWI has been linked to a variety of exposures, including:
      • Fumes from destroyed chemical warfare agents (sarin, cyclosarin, mustard gas, soman)
      • Pesticides (e.g., chlorpyrifos, permethrin, N,N-diethyl-meta-toluamide)
      • Pyridostigmine bromide
      • Other chemicals (e.g., fuels, cleaners, lubricants, fumes from oil well fires)
      • Multiple vaccinations (including anthrax)
      • Heat
      • Psychological stress
  • Clinical features
    • Chronic fatigue
    • Muscle and joint pain
    • Neurological deficits (e.g., memory impairment)
    • Functional gastrointestinal problems (e.g., diarrhea)
    • Skin rashes
  • Diagnostics
    • Clinical diagnosis
    • MRI may show reductions of gray and white matter and increased axial diffusivity.
    • Neurocognitive testing usually reveals deficits in short-term memory, fine motor coordination and speed, executive functions, and visuospatial abilities.
  • Management
  • Prognosis: poor; only a few affected individuals experience substantial improvement or recovery over time

Nerve gas poisoning (e.g., sarin)

  • See “Sarin” for details.

Poisoning with hydrocarbons

Combat- and deployment-associated psychiatric conditions

  1. Jorolemon MR, Lopez RA, Krywko DM. Blast Injuries. StatPearls. 2021 .
  2. The Gulf War Illness Landscape. . Accessed: January 21, 2022.
  3. About the Military Health System. . Accessed: January 20, 2022.
  4. Elements of the MHS. . Accessed: January 20, 2022.
  5. Patients by Beneficiary Category. . Accessed: January 20, 2022.
  6. Covered Services. Updated: June 18, 2020. Accessed: January 20, 2022.
  7. VHA History. Updated: November 16, 2021. Accessed: January 20, 2022.
  8. Tactical Combat Casualty Care Handbook, version 5. Updated: May 1, 2017. Accessed: November 3, 2020.
  9. TCCC Guidelines for Medical Personnel.

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