Navy Medicine provides health care to the Marine Corps, which owns no intrinsic medical assets. Navy doctors, dentists, nurses, medical service corps officers, and hospital corpsmen assigned to the Marines wear Marine Corps uniforms, drill and exercise with their Marines, adhere to the same physical standards — fully integrating into the units they support. The most revered relationship is that of a hospital corpsman to his Marines. Every Marine depends on his doc to save his life or limb.
Which one is the Doc?
In the early days of OIF the two friends traversed southern Iraq, miles behind the initial assault. The unit had stopped for rest and chow. Diving into his MRE, Staff Sergeant Ramirez strolled around the vehicle. A sudden, deafening explosion rocked the area, followed by a primal scream. The young Marine had stepped on a concealed Iraqi land mine. He lay in agony on the sand, blood gushing from the remnant stump of a leg blown away.
“CORPSMAN UP!” Hospitalman Alvarez, as any corpsman would do, rushed to the aid of his fallen comrade, disregarding his own personal safety. As he knelt beside the victim, another explosion scrambled the scene, this time the primal scream coming from HN Alvarez. His knee had detonated another concealed mine, whereupon he became not the rescuer, but the second casualty to lose a leg.
Thanks to the most sophisticated and capable field trauma care in military history, The two friends were medevaced to a nearby emergency resuscitative surgery site. They underwent immediate life-saving operations to control bleeding from their traumatic amputations. Then they were air-lifted out of Iraq to the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, where they received secondary definitive surgery. Within three days of the initial explosions, the two comrades in arms arrived at the National Naval Medical Center (NNMC) in Bethesda, MD. They were two of the first four OIF casualties received there.
Even though ensconced in a hospital room thousands of miles from the war, both were still in combat — emotional and physiological. The support they gave to each other in those first few days aided them in that battle — Marine and doc bonded in blood and honor. Both survived their initial wounds, and ultimately wore state-of-the art-prostheses. If you passed either of them on the street six months after their injuries, you would not recognize him as an amputee.
Once he recovered from his injuries, newly promoted Hospital Corpsman Third Class (HM3) Alvarez elected to stay in the Navy and requested orders to NNMC Bethesda. He wanted to continue caring for wounded Marines.
The year after his knee hit that land mine, he and his spouse (also a corpsman) were honorees at the annual Hospital Corpsmen Ball, ill at ease sitting at a head table with a Navy Medical Corps Captain and his equally uncomfortable spouse.
The HM3 didn’t feel particularly worthy of all the honor and attention. He never considered himself a hero. He was just the doc taking care of a wounded Marine.
Similar scenes occurred thousands of times since OIF began in early 2003, and will recur as long as any conflict involves Marines going into harm’s way. Their doc will always be with them, ready to do whatever it takes to care for that Marine.
Without doubt, one of life’s higher callings.