No one disputes that "goat camp" is ugly. Ugly for the military trainees learning battlefield first aid. For the goats that serve as wounded patients. For the public who watched an undercover video released last spring of a Coast Guard session held in Pungo.
But war is ugly, too, and one year after People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals leaked the video and filed a flurry of complaints, a Coast Guard investigation into the March 2012 "live tissue training" session has concluded there was no misconduct by its personnel, but "the controversial nature of LTT" - as the military calls it - demands a search for alternatives.
The debate over LTT, currently a requirement for many war-zone deployments, comes to roost in Hampton Roads like nowhere else.
In this stronghold of the military, combat trauma care has a face - a loved one who comes home alive after a roadside bomb or firefight.
In this home base of PETA, activists focus on the other side of the training - the 10,000 goats and pigs they say are killed each year to teach techniques.
The two sides have been fighting about LTT since the early 1980s, but PETA says the Pungo video - nearly four minutes of footage showing anesthetized goats being wounded with pruning shears and scalpels - has launched "a national conversation" destined to end an exercise the military has used since the Vietnam War.
PETA's argument goes beyond the moral issue, said Justin Goodman, the group's director of laboratory investigations: "The fact is, this is not only bad for the animals, but studies show that teaching trauma personnel to treat injuries is more effective when it's conducted on a simulator."
Not everyone is so certain, especially the military. High-tech practice dummies like SimMan might breathe, bleed and even scream, but they're hard-pressed to stir emotions like a real life held in the hand. They're also expensive, as much $75,000 apiece.
In an email, Coast Guard public affairs officer Lisa Novak said that so far, neither the service nor the Department of Defense "has found a viable synthetic option to the live-tissue training method."
The Coast Guard said it has 250 personnel stationed in high-risk regions where a Combat Lifesaver course is a prerequisite of deployment. The session secretly filmed at an old airfield in Pungo was typical - four days of classroom followed by one day of LTT. Instructors and goats were provided by Tier 1 Group, a federal contractor based in Arkansas. Students included 32 guardsmen, most heading for Iraq.
Divided into teams, students stood around tables set up under canopies in a tree-ringed field. Each table held an adult male goat, unconscious from anesthesia administered by an instructor. While students turned their backs, instructors inflicted injuries on the goats. Students were expected to then assess and tend the wounds swiftly with field first-aid supplies.
As the day wore on, the injuries escalated in severity and number, with instructors turning to shotguns, pistols and axes to mimic man-down trauma. In the afternoon, the goats were laid out along a gravel path to simulate a combat scenario. Teams had one minute to dash into the "hot zone," return enemy fire, secure the area, address the most life-threatening wounds and evacuate their "patients."
They spent the next hour struggling to keep the animals alive using the techniques learned in class. When the time was up, the goats were euthanized.
In the video filmed by a whistle-blower and released by PETA, at least one sedated goat appears to be twitching, and another emits a long, low groan. After viewing the footage, the U.S. Department of Agriculture cited Tier 1 for improperly monitoring the anesthesia.
PETA also objected to what it called the "cavalier attitude" of the LTT participants. Whistling and joking can be heard on the video, but the Coast Guard saw "nothing to suggest this behavior was prevalent" or was "anything other than reaction to a high-stress situation."
It's undeniable the video is tough to watch, even for mainstream meat-eaters who have no qualms about the billions of animals slaughtered for food every year. One reason: the disconnect between the modern table and the factory farm.
"We not only don't think about that, we just aren't even intellectually aware of the process," said D.E. Wittkower, an assistant professor at Old Dominion University who has taught classes on the ethics of animal use.
Video leaked from slaughterhouses elicits similar shudders as the LTT film. Reality, once seen, is "often shocking and disturbing," Wittkower said.
Ironically, that's one fact in LTT's favor. Combat wounds can be horrific, and the military contends LTT helps desensitize rookie rescuers, improving the odds of quick, accurate action.
"The very reason it's distressing," Wittkower said, "is the very reason it works."
The conversation is far from over. In February, Congress ordered the military to justify its use of LTT and assess whether a switch to simulators would cost human lives. In the meantime, the Department of Defense continues to use Tier 1 for LTT, and the Army has put out a contract bid for its own goats - up to $5 million worth - enough to carry out its training plans through 2018.
Joanne Kimberlin, 757-446-2338, email@example.com