The move comes as new data from the two war zones show that modern tourniquets are saving lives in combat - and that soldiers without them have died, perhaps unnecessarily.
Emphasis on the $20 medical tool comes more than two years after a committee of military surgeons and medical experts urged the armed services to distribute tourniquets widely and to promote them as a first course of treatment in combat. And it follows a March 6 report in The Sun detailing cases in which doctors questioned whether soldiers might have lived had they been equipped with tourniquets.
But a glimpse at portions of that data suggests that some of the 1,270 Americans killed in combat since the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan began might have lived if the military's emphasis on tourniquets had come sooner.
Maj. Alec C. Beekley, who served as a staff surgeon with the 31st Combat Support Hospital in Baghdad last year, identified 174 patients there in 2004 whose injuries benefited - or could have benefited - from tourniquets. And as the year progressed and modern tourniquets became increasingly common, he said, it became clear the devices were saving lives.
"It was my experience that if they came in with an extremity wound and they had a tourniquet on, they had a fighting chance," said Beekley, stressing that his data offered only a snapshot and could not be considered typical, absent more information from other hospitals. "If they didn't have a tourniquet, or they had a tourniquet that wasn't effective, they died."
Beekley, who now serves as a trauma specialist at the Madigan Army Medical Center in Tacoma, Wash., recalled the cases of two soldiers who might have benefited if proper tourniquets had been used - one who arrived at the hospital with makeshift tourniquets that failed, and another with a double amputation and no tourniquets. Both soldiers died.
"I don't know what other injuries they might have had, so I can't say whether a good tourniquet would have made the difference," Beekley said. "But soldiers who came in with tourniquets on, even if they were hard to resuscitate, they generally were able to survive."
Military medical specialists say the new tourniquet distribution campaign has created another challenge: persuading service members to use them. Many soldiers in the combat zones, even as they receive shipments of new tourniquets with instructions to carry them on their uniforms, have been trained for years that tourniquets are dangerous, often lead to amputation and should only be used as a last resort.
A new Basic Combat Training program on tourniquet use was implemented this month. Division surgeons are being sent a training package to distribute throughout their units.
And the Army also is scrambling to make sure its new outlook on tourniquet use spreads throughout Iraq and Afghanistan as fast as the devices themselves.
"We even have doctors out there who've been trained that the tourniquet is the absolute last course of treatment," said Maj. Jeffrey Cain, a doctor who works at the Army's school for combat medics at Fort Sam Houston in Texas. "We have to change that quickly."
The confusion runs to the very top of the service. After The Sun's report in March, Army Secretary Francis J. Harvey sent the newspaper a letter noting that every soldier carries "an individual pressure dressing that doubles as a tourniquet."
Yet military surgeons have published papers for more than two years saying that standard-issue dressings do not make effective tourniquets, and the Ace-like "Israeli bandage" carried by some soldiers failed a tourniquet test at the Walter Reed Army Institute of Research several years ago.