Call me Corpsman, call me ‘Doc’
By KEITH POUNDS February 13, 2010
Perhaps to the surprise of some, I won’t blast our President on his inability to pronounce the word “corpsman” (which he pronounced “corpse man”). Instead, I’d like to take the opportunity to give much-needed praise to Navy/Fleet Marine corpsmen who are, as you will see, a special breed of warriors.
During my own service as a corpsman, I served at the Naval Hospital, Camp Lejeune, N.C., as well as onboard the USS Joseph Hewes (FF-1078) home-ported in Charleston, and with the 4th Marine Division, New Orleans, La. My specialties included combat casualty care and nuclear, biological and chemical warfare. It’s fair to say I know what I’m talking about.
After initial basic training (boot camp), perspective corpsmen are sent for medical training at the Naval School of Health Sciences in San Diego, Calif. From there they can specialize in any number of medical ratings including X-ray technician or pharmacy technician.
Corpsmen act as health advisers and emergency first responders for the Navy and the Marine Corps. They treat a variety of illnesses from the common cold to decompression sickness requiring hyperbaric treatment.
Many attend Fleet Marine Service School, where they are trained in all aspects of Marine Corps operations. From there, they can further specialize as a Special Amphibious Reconnaissance Corpsman or FMF Recon.
Corpsmen stationed with a Marine unit or far out at sea on a Navy warship often find themselves in volatile, life-threatening emergency situations. There are often no sterile operating rooms and equipment. Doctors and nurses are often miles, if not hours, away. As one author wrote, “Bunkers become operating rooms, shirts become tourniquets, and corpsmen become miracle workers.”
For a corpsman, being stationed with the Navy means serving in a Navy hospital or clinic or onboard a U.S Navy ship. We call this being “on the blue side.” For corpsmen stationed on “the green side,” it means serving as a specialist in emergency medicine and combat care with the Marine Corps.
Ask almost any Marine who has been in combat what the phrase “Corpsman up!” means and he’ll tell you it’s a cry for what the Marine Corps calls the “angels in green.” These are U.S. Navy hospital corpsman specially trained for combat medicine.
Combat corpsmen are trained in patrols, tactics and navigation and wear the same grungy, dirty, sweaty uniforms as Marines and serve as the front-line emergency medical response personnel, very often under enemy fire with little regard for their own safety.
As many corpsmen share a space on memorial walls with the Marines they tried to save, they have adopted as one of their mottoes, “Where angels and Marines fear to tread, there you’ll find a corpsman dead.”
In World War II 1,170 corpsmen lost their lives. In Korea it was 108. In Vietnam, 638. Fifteen died as a result of the bombing of the Marine barracks in Beirut in 1983. Seven corpsmen have been killed in Afghanistan and 31 have died in Iraq.
As further testimony to the bravery and commitment of our corpsmen on the battlefield, they have received 1,582 Bronze Stars, 946 Silver Stars, 31 Distinguished Service Crosses, 174 Navy Crosses and 22 Medals of Honor.
There have been 20 Navy ships named after corpsmen. Corpsman John “Doc” Bradley was one of the six men photographed by Joe Rosenthal raising the second United States flag on Iwo Jima during World War II.
As any corpsman will tell you, few honors sit on one’s heart as well as being called “Doc” by your Navy and Marine buddies.
Quoted in the Navy News Service article, “The Making of a Fleet Marine Force Corpsman,” Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Richard Lister said, “A doc is someone you can count on. He’s someone in your platoon that when something happens to one of our fellow Marines, you can call on him and not have to worry. He’s your buddy, a comrade in arms, a person who you count on to cover your back, to lay down fire, dig fighting holes or do whatever the hell Marines are doing. That’s who a doc is.”
As Herschel Smith wrote in “Captain’s Journal,” “they carry a rifle, they engage in combat, and they do all the things that Marine infantrymen do. When the Marines go on 20-mile humps with full body armor, backpacks and weapons, the corpsmen do all of that and more. The corpsmen take all of their medical gear in addition to their other load.”
In his 2005 book “Corpsman up,” Paul Baviello tells of the anguish that all corpsmen carry with them. He writes how corpsmen “journey into a living hell and experience the thrills and horror of combat, the agony of the wounded and dead and see foxhole relationships develop between blacks and whites, farm boys and city kids ... when friend after friend is wounded and he knows that their lives are in his hands and then wonder for the rest of his life if he did the right things.”
Yes! Our corpsmen are among the most respected, revered members serving in the U.S. Navy and the Marine Corps. If you know a past or present corpsman, call him “Doc” and thank him for his service. He deserves it.
Keith Pounds served as a hospital corpsman 2nd class (SW) during the Lebanon/Grenada-era. He is the author of “The Psychology of Management” and holds an MBA with a concentration in organizational psychology.
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