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Hospital corpsmen face challenges for promotion in Iraq

22 Apr 2004 | Cpl. Matthew Apprendi

Navy hospital corpsmen run alongside Marines here.  They dodge the same bullets, face the same fears and continually step to the aid of wounded Marines.

But some are worried they're missing chances for the same promotions.

Some corpsmen will just miss out, said Navy Master Chief Petty Officer Kelvin E. Carter, command master chief petty officer for 1st Marine Division.  Sailors must take an exam for promotion which leads to a "final multiple," similar to a Marine's cutting score.  Without taking the test, though, they're ineligible.

"The test doesn't guarantee an automatic promotion," said Navy Petty Officer 2nd Class Derrick Cuenca, a corpsman with Company A, 1st Battalion, 5th Marine Regiment from Metairie, La. "But, it's mandatory and also awards points for advancement."

The examination covers general military knowledge of the Navy and also delves into the specifics of a corpsman's mission.

With Company A alone, eight corpsmen were eligible to take the examination for promotion and the awarded points to advance to petty officer 2nd class.

"We tried to administer the exams earlier," Carter explained. 

But deployment dates, staggered flights and the sheer magnitude of reaching sailors spread out across Iraq - an area the size of North Carolina - made that a near impossibility.

Cuenca explained, on average, a petty officer 3rd class would take the test three to four times before gaining advancement to the next rank. But some are concerned that the testing cycle will pass them by.

But Carter said "Big Navy" knows there's a problem.  It first arose last year between when the 1st Marine Division was deployed to Iraq and then redeployed to California.  Some sailors missed the test then too.

"The Navy knew the Marine Corps was going to deploy and they're working with us," Carter said.

For that reason, Navy Chief Petty Officer James F. Baker, 1st Marine Division's medical training officer, brought stacks of exams with him to Iraq.  He's been delivering them across the theater.  Still, getting the test out is proving to be difficult.

"We designed it to drop off the exams at the regiments and filter it down," Baker said. "But we've got corpsmen from one unit supporting another."

There are other challenges too.

"We have a huge logistical issue and we've got people working hard to get out the exams," Carter explained.

Part of the difficulty is the exams are meant for one sailor alone.  They're serialized and one test isn't the same as another.  Another problem is that a chief petty officer or commissioned officer must monitor the test.

"We've had to fly in a chief to monitor exams at one place," Carter said.  "One chief went foxhole-to-foxhole."

Still, some sailors took the exam just hours after coming off patrols and combat operations.

"There are some loopholes, but it works pretty well."

Carter said his goal was to ensure that at least 80 percent of the division's sailors were able to take the exam for the March testing cycle.  Those that don't can take the test in September and if their scores meet the March requirement, promotion dates and pay will be backdated.

"It can be a morale issue," Carter said.  "Your buddy in another platoon might take the test and be wearing the new rank and you're not."

The promotion tests will continue to be an issue as Marine units rotate in and out of theater in the fall.  Carter said the Navy is already positioning sailors for the move.

"The Navy is being very proactive," Carter added.  "It isn't ideal, but this is what we do for our country.  It doesn't go unappreciated."