This Is Where War Reporters Go to Learn How to Stay Alive on the Front Lines

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“Yogurt, parmesan, orange juice, and oatmeal,” said Fay Johnson, a medical instructor, listing her favorite ingredients for simulated vomit as she mixed them together in a bucket. “We’ll put a little fake blood in there to make it pink.”

Johnson was preparing her smelly concoction for the final day of medical drills during the most recent “Reporters Instructed in Saving Colleagues (RISC)” training course in Turin, Italy, during the last week in July.

Conflict zones are dangerous for all journalists, but freelancers are especially at risk. Most don’t have the money to take expensive hostile environment and medical training courses, and freelancers often work without comprehensive insurance, which journalists under contract with media organizations are normally provided before going to the front lines.

RISC training provides freelance journalists and photographers with a four-day crash course in battlefield medical response. The course teaches participants how to treat everything from bee stings to blast injuries, and almost 300 freelancers have taken the course in New York, London, Nairobi, Kiev, and Kosovo since it began in 2012.

RISC was founded by Sebastian Junger, a journalist and author, after the death of his colleague, photographer Tim Hetherington.

Hetherington was mortally wounded in a mortar attack in Misurata, Libya while photographing the country’s uprising against Gaddafi in 2011. At a memorial for the photographer in London, Junger discovered that the wound that killed him might not have been fatal if those at the scene had medical training. In aninterview with Outside magazine in 2012, Junger said that after hearing this he decided to start a medical training program “for freelancers, only freelancers” since “they’re the ones who are doing most of the combat reporting. They’re taking most of the risks… And they’re the most underserved and under-resourced of everyone in the entire news business.”

He added that while insurers insist that big corporate news organizations send their field reporters to hazardous environment courses, the fees are often too expensive to send freelancers. “I just thought we should change that and make it free, and we managed to do it.”

Teams of trainees work to save their patients while instructors pour blood over the bodies during the course’s final simulation. Smoke and a sound effects tape filled with screaming and explosions are used to disrupt the trainees.

During the training in Turin, participants listened to lectures and studied essential life-saving techniques—how to administer CPR or apply a tourniquet. They ran through drills simulating medical emergencies and learned how to provide first aid while ensuring their own safety. Trainees were taught to approach anyone needing medical aid with caution by identifying the mechanism of injury to determine if it was safe to begin treating the patient. Drills focused on different strategies for communicating with patients and evaluating their injuries. The trainees took turns role-playing as the patient and their colleagues had to diagnose and treat them appropriately based on which symptoms they appeared to have.

On the last day, the students put all they learned to the test during a mass casualty drill. The sound of gunfire and explosions blasted from a set of speakers as the instructors set off smoke bombs and firecrackers to simulate the stressful conditions of a combat zone.

“He’s bleeding out! Stop the bleeding!” Sawyer Alberi, the lead instructor, yelled as she poured a jug of fake blood over a medical training dummy to simulate a sudden hemorrhage. A couple of journalists hunched over the dummy frantically applied tourniquets while the sticky red liquid pooled around their feet. After the dummies were moved to safety, an instructor dressed in a burqa ran out, screaming in grief and pushing up against the journalists who were still working to stabilize their patients. By the end of the drill, the journalists were breathing hard, covered in dirt and simulated bodily fluids.

VICE talked with some of the participants to see what the RISC course was like for them.

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