Medics and Corpsmen
These versatile warriors greatly increase the survival
rate for the war wounded.They have proven themselves time and again in Afghanistan and Iraq.
by Janie Blankenship
In every war. heroes emerge from among the Americans who selflessly give their lives so that others may live. But there also exists a group we hear too little about. They are the saviors on the battlefield, the wounded warriors' best friend. the calming presence in the fury of a firelight and the first to be called for help. They are Army medics and Navy corpsmen. Affectionately known as "Doc" to those who serve with them. Medics and corpsmen are trained to take up arms against the enemy, if necessary.
But their medical knowledge enabling them to potentially save those felled by sniper fire or improvised explosive devices is the finest weapon in their arsenal.
Some 956 medics have served in Afghanistan and more than 7.400 in Iraq, based on the number awarded the Combat Medical Badge. At least 97 medics and corpsmen have died in these wars, as of Dec. 29, 2006.
In the military. there is a term by which these individuals live. It's called the "golden hour." Statistics show that 90% of patients who do not receive advanced trauma life support in the first hour will die, hence the term "golden hour. " lt is the medics' responsibility to stabilize the wounded and get them out of the field. In the heat of battle, this task becomes increasingly difficult, as the "Docs" might have
to literally fight to get to a wounded soldier or Marine in need of medical attention.
According to Gen. Robert Magnus, assistant commandant of the Marine Corps, corpsmen and Army medics are more likely to face death than the riflemen they are working to help.
"They're literally moving in and out of the fight to get to their patients," he told the Mideast Stars and Stripes. "They are among the first to go into battle, and they are right in the middle of it."
In these wars, corpsmen are specifically trained to fight in hand-to-hand combat, to fire grenade launchers, drive Humvees and even rappel.
"We received training on how to fight from house to house in a mock Iraq village at the Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center in Twentynine Palms," said Chris Bermudez, a corpsmen serving in Iraq with 2nd PIt., 1st Bn., 24th Marines. "We also
went through numerous weapons qualifications ranging from handguns to M-l6s."
Marine Staff Sgt. Matthew Morse considers the bond between the corpsmen and Marines a sort of brotherhood. "To lose a corpsman would be a huge
blow," Morse told ALL Hands. "Maybe more than losing a Marine because our
corpsmen are our security blankets." He added that Marines serving next
to a good corpsman would fight harder because they aren't worried about being
wounded and can focus on the mission. In addition to carrying what an
infantryman carries, medics and corpsmen lug all necessary medical supplies.
"Honestly, sometimes corpsmen put Marines to shame because of what they
can do," Morse said. Serving with the Army's 3rd Medical Command in Baghdad, Master Sgt.
Robert Greenlief highlighted other areas when combat medics come into play.
Aside from battle--related wounds, medics have to make sure those around them do
not become dehydrated in the heat. "Dehydration is a really big problem
because most of us art not accustomed to the climate," Greenlief related to the
Tampa Tribune. He said simple things such as issuing anti-fungal foot powder and encouraging
troops to change socks more than once a day saves a lot of headaches.
Other preventive measures such as providing flu shots are essential too.
"Somebody with the flu can affect a unit," he said. "Especially when the flu
sweeps through it." The people of Iraq and Afghanistan also have benefited from medics and
corpsmen. Health care clinics/workshops are offered to locals, and vaccinations are
provided. Furthermore, civilians seek out these medical providers when something
is ailing them. Take Spc. Jonathan Winkler, for instance. Serving in Iraq with the Mis--
souri National Guard's 110th Combat Engineer Battalion, he was traveling
along Main Supply Route Tampa near Taji on Feb. 13. 2006, when a bomb
went off just ahead of his convoy. After investigating, GI's believed that a
nearby home was the source of the detonation. A sweep of the dwelling found
nothing unusual. But an old man there thought he was having a heart attack, so
Wlnkler examined him. "The man didn't have a heart attack." he said. "Just a really bad headache."
Like their paramedic and emergency medical technician counterparts in the
civilian world, medics and corpsmen endure a tremendous amount of stress.
This mental trauma intensifies when they work to save someone with whom
they are close. Army Spc. Jonathan Bentjen heard the cry for a medic following an explosion at
Forward Operating base Base Mahmudiyah, Iraq, in October 2005. Serving with the 1st BN, 108th
Armor Regt., Georgia National Guard. Bentjen ran to help a wounded soldier
whose left lung had collapsed. The wounded Gl's liver, kidney and pan-
creas all were damaged from shrapnel. After treating the soldier, Bentjen
rolled him on his back only to discover it was his friend, Sgt. Jim Kirchner.
"That surreal feeling came," Bentjen told the Atlanta-Journal Constitution. "I
had never treated anybody that I had actually known. It freaked me out."
Kirchner survived, and credits his friend with saving his life.
In practicing their trade, these lifesavers must think fast, knowing when
to apply a tourniquet or amputate a limb. They also must know how to
insert a breathing tube. When Spc.Colby Smith, also with the
Georgia National Guard, was faced with the decision to amputate a fellow soldier's
arm, he opted instead to use a splint. Yet Spc. Richard Ingram wound
up losing his arm. Nevertheless, Ingram told the Atlanta Journal-Constitution that Smith saved
his tife. For Smith, working on Ingram, who was his bunkmate, proved to be a
turning point. "I came into this shack and bawled my eyes out," Smith told the newspaper.
"After you work on someone who is that close to you, medicine is sour. The
beauty of it is gone." Smith, who had hoped to go to school to become a cardiologist, changed his
mind following his service in Iraq. So how do these battlefield saviors-
many of whom are barely out of high school-learn to act in a moment's
notice to save lives? In New York. for example, reservists can spend one weekend a month for
nine months preparing for the war zone. They train at the Academy of Advanced
Combat Medicine at Kings County Hospital Center in Brooklyn. Designed to prepare reserve medics
for the battlefield, trainees learn to treat everything from gunshot and stab
wounds to car accident victims. Some 1,200 major trauma patients are admit-
ted. each year to the hospital, making it an ideal training ground. "The purpose of this program is to get
them more facile with real-world trauma," Dr. Patricia O'Neill, co-director of
the hospital's Trauma and Critical Care Division, told the New York Times, "so
when they are deployed, they're not scared to death." When Petty Officer 3rd Class Dustin
Kirby went through training at another facility, he worked on an anesthetized
pig. His goal was to work with live tissue to save the "patient." Though his pig was
shot twice in the face with a pistol, six times with an AK-47, twice with a 12-
gauge shotgun and set on fire, Kirby was able to keep the animal alive for 15 hours.
(Regrettably, Kirby was wounded by sniper fire on Dec. 25, 2006, while serv-
ing with the 2nd Mobile Assault PIt., Weapons Co., 2nd Bn., 8th Marines in
Iraq. While the bullet struck his face and caused severe damage to his jaw and
upper palate, the 22-year old corpsman refused a stretcher and walked to the
helicopter for evacuation. Kirby's cousin, Petty Officer Joe Dan Worley, who lost
his leg in Iraq, was featured in VFW in February 2005.)
At Fort Campbell's Alfred V. Rascon School of Combat Medicine in Kentucky,
medics learn that they must be prepared to fight at all times, even when they are
trying to render medical aid. "One medic, on his weapon returning
fire, can make the difference between the enemy staying and continuing to fire on
us, or saying, 'Whoa, I got to go:" Capt. Brad Tibbetts told the Boston Globe.
"That's one thing we teach them-when to delay and when you can't."
They also learn how to treat patients in the dark, something medics returning
from Afghanistan said they wished they had been prepared for.
Computer-controlled dummies that "bleed," breathe, blink and have a pulse
are used as wounded victims. If medics-in-training "lose a patient,"
they must write a letter to the deceased's parents. They also flunk the final and
must take it over. No matter what the method, the training
is working, because 90% of the wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan survive
compared to 73% during the Vietnam War, for example.
To meet the demands of contemporary war, mindsets have adapted. "I'm a
Marine first, corpsman second and coroner/mortician last," corpsman Bermudez
said. Clearly, the responsibilities of Army medics and Navy corpsmen are great.
They are a select group who deserve far greater public recognition.
Editor's Note: This is the first in an occasional
series concerning medical care in
Iraq and Afghanistan.