Informal networks

The Daily Mail tells the story of how a far flung bunch of strangers, including Michael Yon, created a temporary, self-organized network to get a British soldier an artificial lung he needed to survive until he could be flown to a specialist facility for treatment. The soldier was shot accidentally on his own base. What happened next shows when "can do" meets modern comms.

The respected American journalist Michael Yon, himself a former US special forces soldier, reported on his blog that he heard the shot and saw a flurry of activity and a medical evacuation helicopter taking Soldier X away. ... Soldier X had been shot in the abdomen and chest, losing his right lung and damaging his liver ... He was alive – but only just. ... He needed a portable, low-pressure artificial lung and the Americans offered to help. But the bureaucracy of moving from the British to the American military system meant that valuable time was being lost. ... Contacted by a quick-thinking British doctor at Camp Bastion, Mr Yon sent an urgent email to a group of American civilian volunteers called Soldiers’ Angels near Ramstein Air Base in Germany, where most American casualties from Iraq and Afghanistan are initially sent.

The volunteers, founded by the great-niece of General George S. Patton, alerted the US Army’s nearby Landstuhl Regional Medical Center’s Acute Lung Rescue Team, which specialises in going straight to the aid of soldiers with severe lung problems.

From then events moved rapidly. The "Soldier's Angels" found a suitable artificial lung at the University of Regensberg. Now the race began to get it to him. A call went out to US units in Qatar to fly the specialists to the British casualty. Tanker support was required and that was arranged. Meanwhile, a C-17 was sent to pick up the patient; when that aircraft could not continue due to safety regulations and required downtime, a second C-17 was brought in. Like some kind of science-fiction machine that simply conjured resources to get the job done, US Air assets moved pieces around over two continents to get the soldier to the lung machine while doctors ran ten times a normal human's blood supply through him to keep him going. He lived.

His mother eventually met the recovering soldier in Germany where she thanked the Soldier's Angels, who were a key link in the chain of events that led to his recovery. They passed the word in turn to Michael Yon, still somewhere in Afghanistan. "She had no idea of the extraordinary lengths hundreds of people had gone to save him. I told her about some of this," MaryAnn wrote to Yon. "She broke down and couldn’t believe 'all of those people would do all that for my son'. It was a very, very moving moment."

One of the key factors in the success of this effort was the powerful use of online reputation. Online reputation plus comms can result in magic. Michael Yon and the Soldier's Angels knew of each other and knew enough to understand that they were all of them serious people. They were well-connected nodes in a network -- not a formal network mind you -- but an informal collection of nodes with roughly known reputational values that could make connections between them at need. And they did and made things happen. Even when the effort crossed into the formal domain of the USAF and the British Armed Forces it's a fair bet that emails, IM or telephone calls were made to keep the wheels turning, not necessarily corresponding to any chain of command. Along the way paperwork was doubtless filed and things done to square events with the regs. But as someone told me once, there's the way things are supposed to be done and the way things are really done. And that vitally depends on the power of reputation in informal networks.

The only official response from the MoD about the case has come in a statement from Surgeon Rear Admiral Lionel Jarvis, assistant chief of defence staff (health), which said: ‘The current Coalition operation in Afghanistan allows flexibility in the selection of the best casualty transfer system available at the time.

None of that should obscure the fact that things didn't happen by themselves. They occurred because individual men and women took the initiative and acted. The vast ocean of connectivity bears no spark but for the fire embarked on it. And the great wonder of life is that we should find it where we never even sought to look.


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