Guardsman gets hands-on medical experience through Army SMART program

By Steve Larson
Public Affairs Office

Staff Sgt. Gene Coker’s goal in life is to one day become an Army surgeon. To that end, he enlisted in the U.S. Army, serving at Fort Riley with the 4th Brigade’s 2nd Battalion, 32nd Field Artillery as a combat medic.

He later enlisted in the Kansas Army National Guard and served in Manhattan with the 130th Field Artillery Brigade while pursuing degrees in microbiology and clinical psychology as part of his pre-med curriculum at Kansas State University.

Recently, the Florida native had the opportunity to expand his hands-on medical experience under the Strategic Medical Asset Readiness Training program. This line of effort is part of the U.S. Army Medical Department’s Medical Skills Sustainment Program under the direction of the Office of the Surgeon General of the United States Army.

The two-week training was just the sort of experience Coker had been hoping for.

“I was a student with the SMART training in hopes of obtaining more civilian-side experience outside of the extensive military experiences I have,” said Coker.

Coker said the class was conducted in Camden, New Jersey, at the Level 1 Trauma Cooper Hospital.

“Level 1 means all doctors needed for any trauma are at the hospital and available for all situations,” said Coker.

While the SMART program had been in existence since 2018, this was the first class to train in the Camden location. Medical Command plans to continue expanding the program, which includes personnel from all Army, Air Force, Navy and Coast Guard components, to more medical facilities across the United States.

“The training was hands-on with actual patients in an effort to give a more concrete sense of self efficacy to those who will be deploying,” said Coker, “and to give Guardsmen an additional point of more detailed, continued training to retain core skills.”

Coker, who is currently assigned with the 177th Area Medical Support Company, was the only Kansas Guardsmen enrolled in his class, which ran the gamut of medical career fields.

“All of them are from medical-related military occupational skills, from x-ray techs, lab techs, combat medics, and administration,” said Coker. “From what I was told, it included physician assistants and doctors, as well.”

During the training, Coker discovered there are similarities in what the military and civilian medical practices do, but there are also some differences.

“In the Army, we deal with mostly acute injuries in real time, while on the civilian side the most you see are chronic long-term illness,” said Coker. “I also thought, as a combat medic, you worked on a level of speed at which most did not operate due to the nature of the injuries seen in combat, yet the EMT and paramedics I worked with were the same or even faster, which left me reacting faster than I thought I would have to.

“I remember when we arrived to a call to find a women who was having an extreme asthma attack and they had her on the CPAP machine, loaded onto a gurney and in the vehicle within 10 minutes,” said Coker. “I was pleasantly surprised to find I was able to keep up with them despite not having had any training or experiences outside a military setting.”

Coker urged anyone with an interest in an Army medical career to get with their units to learn about the approval process for the program.