You Rock, Dad

This photo tells a beautiful yet haunting story.

Servicemen and their daughters hit the dance floor at the San Diego Armed Services YMCA Father and Daughter Dance. More than 450 military fathers attended the 7th annual event, themed “A Night in the Spotlight.” U.S. Navy photo by Mass Communication Specialist 1st Class James R. Evans (Released) 130216-N-DR144-466

Military men in uniform dancing with their young daughters would strike a chord in most hearts. This photo certainly did in mine. I haven’t stopped thinking about it since I posted it on Facebook a few days ago. 

You can learn much about any military member from the devices and ribbons on the uniform. Here’s what we know on closer inspection of the man on the photo’s right (whom I’ve never met): He’s a first class hospital corpsman with at least eight years of naval service. He wears warfare devices that validate rigorous formal qualifications in both surface warfare and fleet Marine force. His ribbons indicate that he’s deployed overseas and served at sea multiple times in support of the global war on terrorism, that he’s an expert with a rifle, and that he’s seen combat action. The top ribbon is the most impressive: a Navy and Marine Corps Achievement medal adorned with a gold “V” for valor.

This proud  dance floor dad knows, from personal close experience, the horrors of war. He’s put himself into harm’s way to serve his country and to bring medical care to sailors and Marines in combat. 

That’s just what we know from his uniform. The story runs deeper. What about the little girl in her gorgeous gown and her carefully coiffed brown tresses? How much of her young life has this dad missed, especially when he was in combat and at risk of never seeing her again? Was he present when she was born (many deployed sailors miss the births of their children)? Did he hold her hand on her first day of school? Dry her tears when she fell down, or when other children were mean to her because she was the new kid in the neighborhood? Tell her stories at bedtime? How many days, weeks, months did the two of them think about and yearn for each other when they were apart? 

Personal and family sacrifices are the real cost of war, for service members and their loved ones. You won’t find those represented in ribbons and medals. They are burned into the hearts and souls of those who have served, and the families who — in every real sense — served with them.

The men and women of the Navy hospital corps are true heroes. Like most military members, they leave it to  the nation’s leaders and its people to debate the ultimate value of where they go and what they do. To the best of their ability, they carry out the orders they are given. And they do it to near perfection, regardless of the risk of death or injury, or the cost to their personal lives. 

Corpsmen are especially vulnerable in combat. Enemies target the medics as a means to disrupt and demoralize their adversaries. In the last ten years, more corpsmen have died in combat than any other Navy rate. It’s always been that way, in any modern conflict.

May the little girl in the photo, and all others like her,  always remember that night as one of the most special nights of her whole life. May she always know and love and cherish her dad, not only for being a war hero, but  for being the handsome Navy man in uniform who danced with her on one very special night.

And for the dad, may he some day experience a father’s ultimate joy and dance with her at her wedding.

Bravo Zulu, and Semper Fi, Shipmate.

Bonded in Blood

Today marks the 237th birthday of the United States Marine Corps; and tomorrow (not Monday) is Veterans Day. In honor of those two events, I’ve reworked some prior posts to reflect on the deeper meaning of these two events:
Two Latino-Americans grew up in the Texas Hill Country, not far from each other, and both entered military service soon after high school. Staff Sargeant Alameda, USMC, and Hospitalman (HN) Alvarez, USN (not their real names) became  friends when both were assigned to a Marine Corps Logistics unit just prior to Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF). Staff Sergeant Alameda was a regular Marine. HN Alvarez was a Navy hospital corpsman assigned as medical support to that Marine unit.

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 be prepared 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 Alameda strolled around his vehicle. A sudden, deafening explosion rocked the area, quickly 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 remant stump of a leg blown off.

“CORPSMAN UP!” Hospitalman Alvarez, as any corpsman would do, rushed to the aid of his fallen comrade, mindless of his own personal safety. As he knelt beside the victim, another explosion scrambled the scene, the primal scream coming from HN Alvarez himself. 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, both amigos 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, and that given from fellow Marines, aided them in that battle. Both survived their initial wounds, and ultimately wore stateofthe artprostheses. 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.

Semper Fi, Marines!