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VIRGINIA BEACH -- The video is tough to stomach: Live goats being used for Coast Guard trauma training at an old airfield in Pungo.
The undercover footage, shot by an anonymous whistle-blower and delivered to the Norfolk headquarters of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals, is firing up both sides of a debate that impacts a military town like nowhere else: Should animals be sacrificed in order to save lives on the battlefield?
The military, which calls the practice "live-tissue training," says yes.
In an email from the Department of Defense, Lt. Col. Melinda Morgan said the exercises are "vitally important because the medic is the first responder who provides treatment to an injured soldier, sailor, airman, Marine or civilian. Comprehensive combat medic training is absolutely necessary to prevent significant loss of life of our nation's sons and daughters."
Animal rights groups say no.
"It's simply not necessary," said Ingrid Newkirk, PETA's founder. "Not only are there more humane ways, but more effective. Our soldiers deserve more than some goats and a pair of tree trimmers."
The video, which blurs the faces of the human participants, shows lopping shears and scalpels being used to inflict wounds and amputate the legs of anesthetized goats so trainees can practice war zone emergency techniques.
In one scene, a goat is heard moaning. In another, a prone goat kicks, prompting a man attending to the animal to call for "another bump" of anesthesia.
PETA turned to its bench of celebrity supporters - legendary director Oliver Stone, a Vietnam vet, made his own video condemning the goat exercise - and filed a flurry of complaints, which prompted a number of investigations.
Last month, the U.S. Department of Agriculture cited Tier 1 Group, the private military contractor that orchestrates the training, for inadequately anesthetizing and monitoring the goats.
It's the Arkansas-based outfit's second such violation. In 2011, the USDA warned Tier 1 that its procedures violated Animal Welfare Act protocols that cover research animals and were "to be corrected immediately."
The city of Virginia Beach isn't pleased either. After hearing from PETA, Chris Langaster, an assistant zoning administrator, sent a warning letter to the airfield's owner.
"The animal-abuse component of the situation - that's not my field," Langaster said. "My part is the use of the property."
Langaster's letter, addressed to Pungo Airfield LLC, points out that the land is zoned AG - for agriculture - with conditional use permits that allow a mulching facility and recreational paintball and car racing. Trauma training isn't part of the deal.
"We weren't aware at all that this was going on there," Langaster said.
The Coast Guard has launched its own inquiry to ensure the Pungo exercises adhered to its policies. In an email from a Coast Guard office in Portsmouth, Lt. Cmdr. Jamie Frederick said the service has hundreds of members stationed in Iraq and Afghanistan, and that combat trauma training has been conducted in Hampton Roads since 2008, with 514 personnel taking part.
PETA says human-like simulators and inner-city emergency rooms would offer more realistic training.
"Go to Chicago," Newkirk said. "Or Detroit. We've got over 800 ER doctors who've told the military, 'We can show you all the gunshot wounds you need.' "
But the Defense Department isn't convinced.
"We're actively working to refine, reduce, and appropriately replace the use of live animals in medical education and training whenever possible," Morgan wrote in her email. "However, until there are validated alternatives, the experience and confidence gained by the use of live animals in teaching life-saving procedures must remain a viable training method."
Since PETA lodged its complaint with the Department of Defense, the Navy has awarded a $1.7 million contract to Tier 1 to conduct trauma training exercises for 360 service members in Virginia Beach and San Diego using live pigs.