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On Being A Peacetime U.S. Navy Corpsman
THREE STORIES - A Wake Up Call, Someone Who Will Never Wake Up, Charge Forward!
My first experience on the importance of my job happened two weeks into classroom training. It was five minutes that changed my life for ever!
Hospital Corpsman's training school in San Diego seemed like just a big joke to us. No war was going on, we all disrespected our instructor, goofed off, never studied, partied all night and thought we were all going to be chasing nurses around a Naval hospital in eight more weeks. Then HE WALKED IN.
Suddenly the heavy oak classroom door slammed shut so hard it shook the very foundation of the building. That jolted us to attention in our seats and our lives would be changed forever. Right then at that moment I started to take A LOT more seriously what an honor, a privilege and what it REALLY meant to be a real US NAVY CORPSMAN.
*KASLAMMMM!!!!* the door echoed! "SIT DOWN AND SHUT THE HELL UP RIGHT NOW!!" he bellowed. Who WAS this guy? He walked with a limp, had a black navy issue eyepatch over one eye, rows of ribbons covered his chest and he was a Hospital Corpsman 1st class petty officer. Never did catch his name.
"I SAID NOW!" Then he looked around the room at us "newbies" with utter disgust letting us drink him in and began a five minute speech that was not meant to be a Q &A. We were there to listen only.
My Whole Outlook On Life Is Suddenly Changed
"The United States Hospital Corpsman is thee most posthumously decorated rating in the entire armed forces IN THE WORLD!" he began, "That means after you're dead!" An audible "gulp" resonated throughout the classroom. Never thought I could be called upon to defend our country in war at any second.
"You ever see those clips of D-Day and those US Marines dropping like flies just as they hit the beach?" he calmly implored. "Well, some of those ARE CORPSMEN!" and continued to frighten us more.
"YOU HIT THE BEACH JUST LIKE A MARINE DOES and they will affectionately call you "Doc" because YOU are the only medical personnel in battle fighting side by side with them." he said as he began to limp back and forth in front of us.
"Your job is to keep those men, YOUR MEN, THE AMERICAN FIGHTING MAN, ALIVE EVEN IF IT MEANS GIVING YOUR OWN LIFE BECAUSE THEY ARE MORE IMPORTANT THAN YOU IN FIGHTING THE ENEMY AND PRESERVING LIFE, LIBERTY AND FREEDOM OF OUR NATION!" he virtually was yelling at us by then. I thought, "Hey, I didn't sign up for this!"
"You must keep them alive until a real doctor can treat them, a helicopter picks them up or you have done everything in your physical capacity including give your OWN BLOOD to that soldier in your efforts to keep him alive" he seemingly recited from a unwritten law by heart, "OR until you are absoutely sure he is dead lying in your arms! And believe me, you WILL take every single death to heart and blame yourself for not being able to do more for that man who would have SURELY have given his OWN LIFE fighting for YOU!" he continued.
"Those four Marines hoisting the flag up at Iwo Jima? One is a U.S. Navy Corpsman!" he said in his blistering tone because most people don't know that including many of us.
"You have the responsibility of every marine, sailor, human being out there, including your own enemy, at times and every Mother's son, to bring them back home alive. EVERY. SINGLE. ONE. OF. THEM!" he emphatically emphasized.
"IT IS YOUR JOB AND YOUR LIFE WILL DEPEND UPON IT! DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?" he bellowed out at us and then repeated louder. "DO YOU UNDERSTAND ME?" Every Corpsman in the classroom answered him.
"Every single brave soldier that you couldn't keep alive," he gazed at the ceiling, "will haunt you in your sleep and you WILL remember his face as he looks to you to be Doctor, Mother, Father and God!" he paused, seeming to gather himself.
We All Sit In Stunned Silence
The rest of his speech was lost to me because I couldn't concentrate on what he was saying just thinking about my own mortality and that I was probably destined to die if war was declared at that moment. When he was finished he turned on his shiny black heel, limped out of the classroom and angrily slammed the heavy polished oak classroom door behind him. *KASLAMMMM!!*
Complete silence in the classroom. I was in utter shock. Our instructor, a Navy nurse full lieutenant had a smirk on his face and told us to go take a five minute break. But no one moved for a few seconds. No one really heard him clearly. No one wanted to be that bunch of stupid ass Corpsmen a few minutes ago and it seemed we were all anxious to learn our job the correct way starting right now. I know I did!
Eventually most of us sheepishly and reluctantly shuffled out of class. Some just sat stone faced in their chairs the entire break time. Outside we all just silently stared at the ground not speaking. The only sound were the souls of the shoes stepping on asphalt crunching out their cigarette butts.
From that moment on I took being a Corpsman A LOT more seriously. I tried harder, I studied harder and when I had graduated, then reported to my duty station at the ICU wing on 4North in Camp Pendleton Naval Hospital, California, I stayed after my shift many a time to make sure my patient would be cared for properly.
Many were Vietnam veterans and I know they appreciated my extra effort because it was the least I could do for this instant hero of mine. By the way, you don't get overtime pay in the military.
I put my heart, my soul and nerves into my job while, even to this day, 40 years later from that day I'll never forget in class, I will proudly let anyone I know that I AM AND ALWAYS WILL BE A U.S. NAVY HOSPITAL CORPSMAN!
But you can call me, "Doc!"
One Life Leaves So That One Life May Arrive
The doctors had decided the staff would keep her body alive so the fetus could develop, grow and eventually birth. I was a fresh US Navy Corpsman just out of Hospital Corpsman School and assigned to the unit. Barely 21 years old, my job was to keep her "alive" on the night shift.
She was my age, Latina, almost seven months pregnant and had complained of a headache when she arrived in the E.R. but then dramatically "stroked out" right there in front of the staff while they scrambled to just keep her breathing. A ventilator was instantly hooked up to her and an hour later here was our patient, actually TWO patients, presented to us in the M.I.C.U. at Camp Pendleton Naval Hospital. She was dead. Out. Brainwaves flat lining dead. But baby was still alive. Just too soon to birth.
For nearly two months, the entire staff had personally taken it upon ourselves to mimic life in the mother's body and to keep the baby alive. The amount of tubes, wires, monitors, doctors, nurses and corpsmen surrounding her daily was astounding. I found myself hanging around long after my assigned shift while checking on mama and the baby even on my day off.
Fetal Distress and Everyone Jumps In To Help
One morning after the long night shift, I was relieved by the next shift crew and went to get some morning chow in the downstairs kitchen. As was my nature and out of habit, I went back up to the unit to check on "our special patients" before heading "home" across the street to the barracks.
Suddenly I could see the unit was a whirlwind of doctors yelling and our staff furiously applying their hands on knowledge behind the curtain around her bed that had been drawn for the very first time. Apparently, just after I'd left the unit, the baby exhibited signs of fetal distress. The time had finally come for birth and absolutely had to be done immediately, I was told!
Somebody Is Here To See You
Suddenly, we heard a wail, a tiny cry and then screams of joy from us all! HE WAS HEALTHY, crying the joyful cry of LIFE through his lungs!
I cried. We all cried and hugged each other and cheered loudly as the pink baby was whisked away past us in an incubator to another part of the hospital. We all watched as our efforts for the past two months were well worth it but sad too because mother was then also being prepared for the morgue.
Most of the staff actually addressed her corpse with a report, "You did great, Mama! Just great! A beautiful, healthy baby boy, Mama!"
WE DID IT! WE had all helped to give birth to a healthy baby into the world! He was OUR BABY!
I'll Never Forget Navy Nurse Lt. Cdr Marilyn A. Day
Working in the M.I.C.U. of Camp Pendleton Naval Hospital at my first job in the navy was tough! Almost all "newbie" Hospital Corpsmen had to work on the "bedpan wards" of the hospital first. The general med wards.
But I, and my convincing ways, had swayed the Commanding Chief of Nurses to take a chance on me and now I thought that maybe I was in over my head.
The head of the medical intensive care unit was a woman 5 feet tall, about 98 pounds and I was SCARED TO DEATH OF HER! She was black as night, came from a deeply segregated south and had a permanent scowl on her face. Her initials were M.A.D. - Lt.Cmdr Marilyn A. Day and she demanded everyone (no matter WHAT rank) before you addressed her to say, "Good morning" or depending on the time of day and then to state your business.
My name for the first three months of working there was a snap of her fingers and a, "YOU!" yelled out. I was bound and determined to show HER what I was made of and studied my job intently, even staying after my shift to learn more.
Finally after that initial 90 day humiliation period, I felt like I had arrived when she yelled out, "MILLER! NOW!" I almost smiled openly at her but dared not to! She demanded perfection and never let you know if you were doing well only if you were NOT.
After about six months I found out she really loved her nation, loved her staff and loved her Navy softball. Our hospital softball team was the only Navy team on a Marine Corps base of about 40.
Let's face it, I was GOOD, too. Playing center field and batting lead off (at 6'6"?!) because I made several diving catches per game and nearly always got on base. So I invited Miss Day to a game.
Miss Day Made Me Try My Best In Everything
There she sat stoic and proud in her nursing uniform. The white contrasted with her coal black skin. I was always cocky and before I approached the plate to lead off our half of the first inning, I said, "Watch THIS, Miss Day!" She didn't bat an eyelash looking unimpressed... for now.
I already made a diving catch on a low liner in the top of the first to keep some Jarhead unit scoreless and had tore my pants. First pitch I saw I clobbered it deep into right center field and knew right away I had a sure double. But when they threw the ball in, I had clipped the corner of the base with my cleat and kept right on speeding towards third.
The Marine was caught off guard and threw high to third but that didn't matter anyway because I had already decided to go for home and had passed that base, headed straight for the plate like the 5:15 pm Northern Pacific express heading for home on a Friday!
The catcher caught the ball way before I'd arrived by at least three running steps and I looked to be a sure out. 1, 2, 3, CRASH!! I flew head first into him (this was military softball in the '70's. You were allowed to play hard!) sending the ball in the air at least ten feet and him flying backwards knocking him out cold, his head thumping on the hard dirt.
I got up, stomped on the plate hard with my right cleat.
"One to nuthin'!" I said to the catcher who couldn't even hear me. My navy blue uniform pants ripped open to expose a bloody knee.
The stands were quite full because most of the hospital staff shows up to our games and they were cheering wildly as I jogged past Miss Day who sat behind the screen politely clapping and asked sarcastically, "So how was THAT Miss Day?!"
She feigned indifference and replied, "meh." But she ended it with a rye smile and wink in my direction. I was her favorite Corpsman after that and whenever there was a distressful situation she wanted done right she'd grab me. I remember her once telling a newbie, "Oh, get out of the way and let Miller do it! Dan? Could you come here, please!"
HM2 Daniel W. Miller USN-USNR
It's a feeling of knowing that when a Marine goes down in battle, he cries for three things - God, his Mother and Doc and not necessarily in that order.
Did You Know That the Men Raising the Flag at Iwo Jima Were Four Marines and a Us Navy Corpsman?
At NAS Naval Air Station Minneapolis, MN.
© 2015 Dan W Miller