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Tougher-than-nails SEAL-turned-surgeon stitching up Marines in Fallujah

10 Apr 2006 | Gunnery Sgt. Mark Oliva

There’s something people should remember before they make fun of Regimental Combat Team 5’s surgeon for playing with dolls.  He’s a 30-year student of the martial arts and a Navy SEAL to boot.

Navy Lt. Cmdr. Henry F. Casey III is a walking culture clash.  He’s a naval officer who prides himself of his enlisted days.  He’s a SEAL who loves working with Marines, a dedicated family man who’s on his fourth tour away from his family and can recite the prose of Rudyard Kipling with as much ease as he’ll call someone “Dude.”

“I consider myself a naval officer who happens to be a doctor, not a doctor in a uniform,” said the 43-year-old Casey.  “I’m more at home in the line units.  I’m that rottwieller at the door.”

Life in uniform seemed a natural fit for Casey, who recently relocated his family from San Diego to Pensacola, Fla.  His father, a WWII veteran, spent 30 years in the Navy, 20 of those enlisted and the last 10 as a chief warrant officer.  As a kid in the 1970’s Casey attended the Marine Corps’ Devil Pups program and sported nearly every sort of scarlet and gold t-shirt found at the post exchange.  It was when he was 14, though, he found his calling.

There were two instances that changed the course for Casey.  First he was stabbed by his best friend’s brother and needed stitches to close the wound.  Shortly after, he attended his first karate classes and watched two young men commence in a full-contact contest.

“There was something different about these guys,” Casey said.  “It was the first time I saw an all-out fight.  They were ripping clothes and hitting each other for all they were worth.  I thought, ‘That is what I want to be because I was never going to get stabbed again.”

When Casey was 17, he also worked for the local Sheriff’s Explorer program and received what he called a “Johnny-on-the-Spot” award for assisting a girl who suffered a seizure.

Those two young men were Navy SEALs.  They served as role models and mentors when Casey enlisted in 1980 with their advice to learn to become a good sailor before trying out for Basic Underwater Demolition School.

So he waited and took his first duty assignment as a hospital corpsman at Camp Lejeune when he was approached by a retired Navy captain who was impressed with the young Casey’s appearance and professionalism.  He offered him an appointment to the Naval Academy.  But that had nothing to do with Casey’s plans to be a SEAL and he turned it down.

Casey was a petty officer 2nd class before he made the leap, figuring he had the maturity and the knowledge the SEAL teams would want.  He knew it would be tough.  And his hopes were dashed when he was injured during the training and dropped.  Still, he didn’t slow down.  He asked for orders to 3rd Reconnaissance Battalion, Okinawa, Japan.

“I figured I could to the whole Zen thing and train in martial arts in Japan,” Casey explained.  From there, he made his second attempt at BUDS and finally earned the right to wear his trident.

“I’m fiercely proud of my enlisted time,” Casey said.  “I knew at 21 I wanted to be a doctor, but knew I hadn’t got out all my piss and vinegar.”

So Casey continued on until he wore the rank of a senior chief petty officer.

“Being a SEAL is a young man’s game,” he said. 

Casey traded his enlisted time for a commission as a doctor in the Navy.  It’s a decision that kept him close to the operating forces and one that brought him to Iraq four times.

Casey first two tours were with Marine Air Control Group 38 through the Medical Augmentation Program.  The Fleet Marine Force was short of doctors and Casey was among those who shed hospital scrubs for utilities and headed for the sound of gunfire. 

Just before he left for his second Iraq tour, Casey was told he had orders to 5th Marine Regiment.  When he finally checked in, two combat tours under his belt, he found out 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment was short of surgeons. 

The solution was easy.  He’d go himself.  It was one of his toughest tours.

“Ramadi was so somber, so sorrowful, but it was an honor,” Casey explained.  “It was an overwhelming sense of self-worth knowing you made a difference.”

The difference Casey made wasn’t lost on any member of the command.  Lt.Col. Eric Smith was the battalion commander and came to rely upon Casey not just to heal his wounded Marines, but heal souls when they lost Marines as well.

“When we lost a man, it was Doc Casey who pronounced him, and that was important,” Smith said in an e-mail exchange.  “After one of our men died, Doc Casey would gather the corpsmen around him, pray for him, and then … ensure that he was reverently prepared for the long flight home. 

“I can’t say how many men were saved by him, but the answer is a lot,” Smith added.  “He treated so many badly wounded Marines and sailors that it is just impossible to know how many are alive because of his skill. Doc Casey was not just a medical officer, he was the wounded man’s best friend.”

Casey’s tour in Ramadi is one he’ll carry with him forever, he said.  It’s left indelible marks on his soul and reaffirmed his commitment to Marines and sailors.

“To have been a part of that effort, I’ll carry that for the rest of my life,” Casey explained.  “I should have been killed five times in my life.  I’ve very aware of what God’s done.  I’m a man of deep faith.”

Casey said it’s not just his deep abiding faith that’s carried him, but the love of his wife, Cheryl, who recently retired from the Navy as a lieutenant commander and his four children, ages 19 months to 15-years-old.

“I couldn’t do this without my wife,” Casey said.  “She hasn’t bitched one time.  She has unhesitatingly given me up to the Marines for four tours.  What I’ve done over the last four years is what I joined the Navy to do.  It’s very humbling for me to have saved lives in a combat zone.”

But that doesn’t mean Casey’s gone soft on Marines, though.  He smiles wryly when he speaks of catching a Marine here and there malingering, looking for a free day off with a light duty chit.  All he has to do is flash the brass trident on his chest, letting them know he’s seen and heard it all before.

“I tell them I was carrying a rucksack and standing post before they were born,” Casey said.  “I’ve given the Eagle, Globe and Anchor speech a couple times and invite them to their own courts-martial if I see them malingering.”

Navy Senior Chief Petty Officer Pete D. Villanueva has worked with Casey for the past two years and said that he’s a an sailor’s best friend who lives to serve with Marines.

“He’s a very driven and passionate individual,” said Villaneuva, a 46-year-old from Manila, Philippines.  “He’s a mission first, people always kind of guy.”

Villanueva credited much of Casey’s style to his years as an enlisted man.

“He knows what the grass roots look like,” he said.  “He always understands.  He uses all his experience when he makes decision.  The sailors respect him a lot, not because if his trident, but because he’ll take time to teach the corpsmen.  He’ll ask questions to make them learn.”

It’s a tough as nails approach that’s kept Casey going for years and one he said he doesn’t see ending any time soon.  It’s been ingrained in him since he sat at his father’s knee learning Kipling and hearing the tales of all his WWII buddies, men Casey says saved the world.

It’s that sort of full-steam-ahead attitude that’s given Casey a nickname that’s stuck for years.  And that’s where the dolls – rather, action figures – come in.

“People have always called me GI Joe,” he said.  “That dude went with me everywhere.  I couldn’t wait to grow up to be GI Joe.”

Casey keeps two with him in Iraq, courtesy of his kids.  One is a Navy diver, to play on the irony that the medical dive officer is serving in the desert and the other a Marine. 

“I promised this time I would document the adventures of GI Joe,” Casey said.

There’s no telling when the adventures of GI Joe will end either.  The way Casey figures it, the Navy’s going to have to throw him out before he finally decides to retire.

“I don’t even need a waiver until 2028,” he said.  “That’ll be like 45 years.  Every day I wake up I don’t say I have to go to work.  I get to go to work.”