CAMP HABBANIYAH, Iraq -- For Navy corpsmen assigned to Marine units, saving lives is part of the job description.
Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Seth Thomas Secrease, a line corpsman from K Company, 3rd Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment saved the life of Lance Cpl. John Benson during a support mission with 2nd Tank Battalion near Habbaniyah June 17.
Secrease was riding two vehicles behind Benson, a 21-year-old from Chisago, Minn.,
when he saw a roadside bomb explode through a pair of night vision goggles.
“It was a big explosion,” said Secrease, 28, from Choteau, Mont. “It looked like flashes of light with sparks off of it. About five seconds later the sergeant said on the radio that he got hit and had two casualties.”
Lance Cpl. Manuel A. Lopez was riding in the rear passenger side of Benson’s humvee. He received a concussion from the blast.
“The whole humvee was full of dust,” said the 23-year-old infantryman from Markesan, Wis. “I couldn’t open my eyes, it stung so bad. Then I checked and I was alright. Hays was kicking his leg. Benson was yelling about his arm.”
Lopez pulled Lance Cpl. Alston Hayes out of the vehicle as others moved Benson.
Secrease’s vehicle pulled up behind the damaged humvee and he jumped out to assess the scene.
“At that point Lopez was already out of the vehicle trying to get the gunner out,” he said. “Hays was yelling, ‘Get Benson out!’”
Ready for a worst-case scenario, Secrease instantly got his priorities in order.
“Hays looked like he was doing alright,” Secrease said. “When I heard there were two casualties, I thought it would be pretty bad. It turned out the other guys could wait, but Benson turned out to be worse than I thought.”
They spared no effort getting him to the medical evacuation vehicle as fast as they could, where Secrease immediately took charge of treating Benson’s wounds. He was still wearing his night vision goggles when he applied a Combat Application Tourniquet to Benson’s left arm and directed the other Marines to help stop the bleeding.
“Doc told me to put pressure on his leg,” Lopez said. “Hayes put pressure on his arm.”
“Hays was holding up his head and putting pressure on the tourniquet,” Secrease said. “Then we moved down to his leg. I applied pressure and had the staff sergeant open up a package of Quick Clot. Then I put on a pressure dressing and had them hold it down.”
The Marines kept Benson awake and kept pressure on the wounds while Secrease continued to work.
“I grabbed Benson’s hand and told him to keep a pulse on it so I would know he didn’t pass out,” Lopez said. “On the way there he was very, very calm. I’m amazed how well he handled it.”
The Marines arrived quickly at Camp Taquaddum’s surgical unit. Benson sustained serious injuries that night, but he survived to see another day.
“Doc’s actions that night were heroic,” said 2nd Lt. Larry J. Schmill, the platoon commander. “He saved Benson’s life.
“He gave them guidance, explicit orders and they listened to him,” added the 31-year-old prior enlisted Marine from New Orleans. “From my 13 years in the Marine Corps, he’s one of the best docs I’ve ever encountered. He began giving orders right off the bat.”
Secrease credited the other Marines in the vehicle for keeping alert and helping to treat Benson despite their own concussions.
“With injuries like that, you need help,” he said. “They did an extraordinary job, and I couldn’t have stopped the bleeding without their help. They were lifesavers in there.”
Secrease enlisted in the Navy on January 18, 2001. He deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom I with 2nd Battalion, 1st Marine Regiment, then spent a year with 1st Battalion, 11th Marine Regiment before being assigned to a year of shore duty at a branch medical clinic at Marine Corps Air Station Miramar, Calif.
He described his job on the line with the grunts as one both daunting and rewarding.
“The corpsman is the first guy there, and our job is to keep him alive until he can get to surgery,” he said. “It’s scary, but a good feeling at the same time, because you’re out there trying to save lives.”
He trained with Darkhorse during the training exercise Mojave Viper at Twentynine Palms, Calif. and attached to the battalion for this deployment. He’s seen many changes and new additions to the gear, to include the Combat Application Tourniquet, or CAT tourniquet most recently.
“The first time I’ve seen them is on this deployment,” he said. “We’re trying to have every Marine carry them. They’re great. You just wrap it around, twist the stick as tight as you can, then it locks in there, so you don’t have to worry about it coming loose.”
Lopez describes Benson as a good-natured, deeply religious man.
“He was the last guy you’d expect anything to happen to,” he said. “He’s always upbeat, always in a good mood.”
Benson is currently recovering from his wounds at Brook Army Medical Center in San Antonio.
“I wish him the best of luck,” Secrease said. “He’s got a hard road ahead of him, but he’s a hell of a fighter. He didn’t quit. It didn’t look good for him, and he fought it the whole time.”
Lance Cpl. John Aylmer was driving the medical evacuation vehicle that night. He’s known Benson for the last two years.
“He’s a happy-go-lucky guy,” said the 21-year-old from Chicago. “He’s always had a good look on things. Our prayers go out to him.”
“He’ll get through and stay upbeat,” Lopez added. “I know he’ll make it, the kind of guy he is. He won’t stop fighting.”