The bond between Marines and their docs is unique in this world. “Docs” in this context can mean physicians or corpsmen; but the shared honor, courage and commitment between hospital corpsman and Marine epitomizes this bond. Just read Flags of Our Fathers and you will get an inkling of what I mean. Or consider this true story:
Two Latino-Americans grew up in the Texas Hill Country, not far from each other. Both entered military service soon after high school. Staff Sergeant Ramirez, 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 Ramirez 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 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.

Semper Fi, Marines

A Word About Heroes

I haven’t posted recently because I was engaged in running the Marine Corps Marathon in Washington, D.C. (I use the word “running” in its broadest sense, one foot planted ahead of the other at some forward pace.)

One always feels a sense of accomplishment finishing a long race, but the feelings I experienced from this event went far beyond any sense of personal victory. This race was never about me, but about heroes — a hero whose image I proudly wore on my back, others who wore the TAPS singlets and photos of their own heroes, and the brave men and women in harm’s way, present and past, who guarantee the lifestyle of freedom that we Americans enjoy every day of our lives.

The most important aspect of the finish photo is not the aging marathon runner propping himself up on the railing, but the background statue depicting Joe Rosenthal’s iconic portrayal of the valor of United States Marines who took the strategic island of Iwo Jima in the waning days of World War II. If you have not read Flags of Our Fathers, or seen the Clint Eastwood movie, I urge you to do so.

When I was stationed in Japan, I had the honor to visit Iwo Jima with a group of Navy colleagues. On a brilliant and tranquil spring Pacific morning, I trudged the black sand of the landing beach, gazed up at Mount Suribachi, and imagined the chaos of hitting that beach in the face of withering enemy fire from all over the island. As I trudged back up the steep berm, my flight boots sank into the grit, an effort that labored my breathing in spite of my good physical shape. Could I have made that short trek with a load on my back and a weapon in my hand, all the time taking fire? What true heroes were the hospital corpsmen like John Bradley who rose to the task of treating the many casualties falling all around them!

After we toured the landing beach, a bus took our us up the steep road to the top of Mount Suribachi. Along the way we passed a group of U.S. Marines trekking to the top, as their forebears had done over a half-century before them.

At the top, we viewed the monument where the flag was raised, and looked down at the now tranquil black beach below. After we paid our respects to the fallen Marines who gave their lives in the assault, our bus toured us over the rest of the island.

Dog tags left by prior visitors. Landing beach below.

Japanese hospital cave

In the hospital cave, I reflected on the other side of the battle — from the perspective of the Japanese who knew they would die on that island, never again to see their loved ones. (Eastwood’s companion movie, Letters from Iwo Jima, tells their story.)

Taken in the light of history, the Marine Corps Marathon looms so much larger than a 26.2 mile run. Of course I’m proud to have completed the distance, but I am all the more humbled at having done so in the company of heroes, past and present.

Semper Fi!