Dr. Decipher: A Salute to Military Medics and Corpsmen

May 31st, 2010 by Dr. John Janousek, M.D.

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On May 5, 1945, Company B, of the 77th Infantry Division of the US Army was battling the Japanese at Okinawa and things were going badly. Enemy artillery, mortars, and machine gun fire raked the company, and the Americans were falling rapidly. At the top of a 400-foot-high escarpment that his company had assaulted, PFC Desmond Doss, a medic, found himself surrounded by wounded and dead soldiers while the Japanese swarmed out of caves and foxholes all around him.

Disregarding the bullets and shells, Doss tended to the wounded troops, then began lowering them one by one on a rope down the face of the cliff to safety. For 5 hours Doss continued, saving 75 men while the enemy, armed with bayonet rifles, repeatedly advanced within feet of the medic before being repelled by fire from the wounded. Remarkably, he was not hit that day, but was severely wounded by a grenade and sniper’s bullet on May 21.

The “rest of the story” is that PFC Doss was a Seventh Day Adventist and conscientious objector and did not carry a weapon. He was awarded the Medal of Honor by President Truman on October 12, 1945. An award-winning documentary about him, “The Conscientious Objector,” was released in 2004.

It is fitting that on Memorial Day we remember our war dead, especially our front line medical providers. They are called Medics in the Army and Air Force, and Corpsmen in the Navy and Marines, but are affectionately known as “doc” to the troops; they function in a military unit like a physician, performing advanced procedures in the field. In military hospitals, medics start IVs, suture and splint fractures, which frees up the nurses and physicians.

One of the Marines who raised the flag on Mt. Suribachi on Iwo Jima was Hospital Corpsman John Bradley. “Doc” was frequently the last person a dying soldier saw and he provided emotional support in addition to emergent medical care.

Military medical training consists of 14 weeks of joint services classroom training at Brooks City Base (San Antonio – formerly Brooke Army Medical Center). This is followed by about a week of medical readiness training and about 8 weeks of clinicals. Training is a continuous process however, and additional certifications are available such as IDMT or IDC as well as special forces medical training.

On March 28, 1966, 21-year-old Hospital Corpsman Robert Ingram’s unit was decimated while on a search-and-destroy mission in Quang Ngai province of Viet Nam. Every lead squad member was killed or wounded.  Ingram rushed forward to assist and was shot through the hand and knee, but he continued caring for the injured.

Suddenly an enemy soldier popped up out of a spider hole close by, and shot the medic through his left eye and face. Ingram returned the fire, killing the enemy, then continued providing care for the troops. He was shot again through the abdomen while moving one of the wounded to safety. When the helicopter evacuation team arrived, the corpsman was unconscious with a low blood pressure, so he was initially triaged as “killed in action.” Miraculously he survived, and was awarded a belated Medal of Honor in 1998.

Medical care in the military is an interesting paradox. Killing the enemy on one hand, and working to save our wounded on the other. After he recovered from his wounds, Robert Ingram spoke of the NVA who shot him: “This must have been the first time that soldier had shot someone while looking him in the face. I could see the look of sorrow in his eyes.” In Iraq and Afghanistan, our field hospitals treat  enemy combatant casualties in addition to our own troops.

We should be thankful and remember all the “docs” who have risked their lives taking care of others. They are frequently overlooked in a squad until the hell that is war breaks loose, then they are among the most valuable of assets, epitomizing selfless service.

One Response to Dr. Decipher: A Salute to Military Medics and Corpsmen

  1. Anonymous

    May 31, 2010 at 3:29 pm

    Dr. Janousek,
    I like how you not only depict the bravery and skill shown by our Military Medics, but that you also enlighten your readers to the difficult moral decisions faced in combat.

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