Being a reporter means you sometimes see things you'll never forget.
I'll never forget the first time I saw a mangled body inside a car that was accordioned from impact with a truck. One of the victim's legs was jutting out from the wreck at an impossible angle, and it was difficult to tell where the machinery ended and the body began, like some nightmarish image out of an H.R. Giger painting.
I'll never forget watching firefighters pull a body out of the Hudson River one summer night while a festival was in full swing on the waterfront a few hundred yards away. The victim had jumped from the Mid-Hudson Bridge, and the revelers were unaware. It was surreal, the grim scene contrasted with booming music echoing across the water and the screams coming from kids on the carnival rides.
And I'll never forget standing next to Paula Zwillinger, mother of Marine Lance Cpl. Robert Mininger, as she found her son's combat boots among the 3,000-plus pairs belonging to fallen soldiers and Marines at the Eyes Wide Open exhibit.
The exhibit, which was hosted at New York's Vassar College that week, was supposed to remind people of the "human cost" of the war in Iraq, but all I saw was a grieving mother's anguish amplified by people who were using her son's death as a prop.
I mentioned Zwillinger because I had the privilege of meeting her a few times after her son's death, when she started the support group Semper Fi Parents of the Hudson Valley. Her son Bob had been hit with an IED while on patrol in Iraq, and an HBO camera crew captured his last moments at an Army hospital in Baghdad, where military doctors raced in vain to save his life. Bob's death would later feature prominently in the documentary "Baghdad ER."
Those doctors were heroic, and they tried to provide Bob with some comfort in his last moments. Rather than shy away from the footage, his mother said she drew comfort from it, knowing her son was with people who cared about him when he died. She also wanted other people to see the documentary, so they would understand the war wasn't just sanitized reports on the nightly news.
"This is war, this is war, this is what people need to see," Zwillinger told ABC News. "If they don't believe this is [a] raw image, then they are not in reality."
Those surgeons deal with the most horrific injuries imaginable, and it would be an understatement to say that few things can prepare them for the real deal, when they're called upon to save the lives of young men and women who have been hit with bombs, improvised explosives, rocket propelled grenades and all manner of barbaric weaponry.
So how do they train for those situation?
There are two ways the military prepares them. The first is by training them on extremely realistic simulators, using "lifelike mannequins that bleed, breathe and can undergo surgery," Army surgeon Michael Murphy told The New York Times.
The other method is by using live animals, mutilating goats and pigs by severing their limbs with tree trimmers, stabbing the animals, and pulling their internal organs out, according to footage captured by PETA. It's not just pigs and goats -- military surgeons are asked to experiment on animals like cats and ferrets, forcing hard tubes down their throats for intubation training exercises.
Aside from the issue of cruelty to animals, medical experts say training on living creatures is actually less helpful -- and potentially harmful -- to surgeons learning how to deal with combat injuries.
"Learning how to apply a tourniquet on a severed leg of a pig or goat does not help prepare medical providers to treat anatomically different human beings wounded on the battlefield," Murphy wrote in a letter to the Times. "Human simulation methods, featuring accurate anatomy and the opportunity to repeat and master difficult emergency procedures, are superior in ensuring troop readiness to manage traumatic injuries."
As the Times notes, for a long time lawmakers weren't sympathetic, and waved off concerns from animal rights activists who opposed the "live tissue training," as the Pentagon terms it.
But since then, a study by military medical experts concluded that using living animals isn't any better than using the complex simulators, and in June, 71 members of Congress sent a letter to Secretary of Defense Ashton Carter, asking the Department of Defense to "hasten the adoption of simulators," the Times reported.
They also point out that 22 of 28 fellow NATO members already ban the practice of using animals for combat surgery training.
That group of lawmakers isn't just a faction of animal rights activists -- it includes military veterans, Republicans and others who normally don't fit the image of animal-loving crusaders.
No one will ever argue that wounded soldiers, Marines and other service members don't deserve the best care possible, by the best surgeons who have the most well-rounded training in the world. But if harming animals isn't required to train them, then animals shouldn't be harmed. As the sole sapient race on this planet, it's our responsibility to care for our less-evolved friends, furry or otherwise.
At the same time, a decade's worth of combat medical experience has not only proven that military surgeons are capable of saving more lives from more severe injuries than in any previous war, but the things they've learned by treating wounded troops, the major advances in trauma care, have had real and significant applications for standard medicine.
“Right now we are seeing some of the most dynamic exchanges between academic medicine and military medicine in our history," Dale Smith, a professor of military medicine, told the Association of American Medical Colleges. "Everyone seems to be benefitting from this—and not the least, the patient.”
When military surgeons and their civilian counterparts alike are calling on the government to stop using live animals for training, it's time for the government to finally listen.