Commanding Officer

Marine sniper-turned-Navy corpsman heals Lejeune Marines

22 May 2004 | Cpl. Shawn C. Rhodes

With an easy smile and laid back manner, six-foot-one-inch tall Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Jeff L. Pursley has the look many might believe is more along the lines of gentle giant than a battle-hardened grunt.

But that's what he is - both at once.  The towering Sailor from Fort Oglethorpe, Ga., carries more than a medical bag in the battlefield.  He brings with him experience as a former Force Reconnaissance Marine. 

"I still know everything I knew while I was with Force Recon, but now as the corpsman, I'm the go-to-guy in the platoon," said the 27-year-old Sailor. 

The irony of the swap in roles - from one who could end a life in one shot, to one who now saves lives - isn't lost on Pursley.

"I could teach a new guy how to shoot and patch a bullet wound the same day," he said.

Pursley's resume would make any warrior proud.  He's served a tour as a sniper with 3rd Force Reconnaissance Company and endured more special warfare schools than he has fingers on one hand. 

But he traded it all to heal Marines whose motto is 'one shot, one kill."  Pursley serves as the hospital corpsman to the Scout Snipers of 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, while they operate in Iraq with the 1st Marine Division.

Pursley joined the Marine Corps in 1996, passed the reconnaissance indoctrination and operated around the world with 3rd Force Recon Company.  He left the Marine Corps as a sergeant in 2000 and took a year off to backpack around the world while training for an even bigger challenge.  He set his goal on joining the elite Navy SEALs.

"If I heard it was the hardest thing a guy could do, I was all over it," Pursley said.

But fate intervened while he attended Basic Underwater Demolition School at Naval Amphibious Base, Coronado, Calif.  Pursley hurt his back and was dropped from the course.  He tried to get back in the program, but was sent instead to become a hospital corpsman.

From there, Pursley was stationed at Camp Lejeune, N.C., at Courthouse Bay. He then went to nearby Camp Johnson for the Field Corpsman School.  Still, the blue-eyed corpsman found himself watching all his friends deploy in support of Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom while he waited for his unit to deploy.

"It broke my heart I couldn't get out here (to Iraq) last time," said Pursley. 

The former Marine remembers his longest combat shot with the M-40 A3 sniper rifle at 1,028 meters.

"I could have been a lot of use to them, that's for sure," Pursley said with a sigh.  "I was working out four hours a day, getting back in shape to try out for the SEALs again, but I got sent to 2nd Marine Division instead."

But Pursley's infantry and long-range shooting skills didn't go unnoticed.

At 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, the corpsman caught a lot of attention with his shiny scuba bubble and jump wings on his cammies, signs of his tours as a Marine.  The year he spent out of the military backpacking around Asia and surfing had left him reduced in rank, but not in skill.

"Those pins turned everybody's head," he said.  "They all wanted to know 'Who's this guy?'  The first day I was there, they put me with the sniper platoon and I've been there every since."

Deploying with the platoon in March to Iraq was the fulfillment of Pursley's Marine-turned-Sailor dreams.

He leads his own team now -- his experience helping his sniper team mates do their jobs better.  The Marines in Pursley's platoon respect his past accomplishments and his work as their team leader, never calling him 'Doc' like many of his Navy peers.  To them, he's just Jeff.

"People get hurt a lot," said Cpl. David Tellado, a 24-year-old Marine sniper from Montvale, N.J.  "It's just in our line of work, especially in a combat zone.  Whether it's the flu or a shrapnel wound, you want someone who knows what he's doing working on you.  Jeff's that guy."

In addition to his field skills as a corpsman, Pursley is also known among the platoon for his leadership abilities and initiative.

"Before we left Lejeune, Jeff made sure we all had our combat lifesaver's course past us and he even vacuum-sealed first aid kits for us," said Cpl. Olen P. Thyssen, a 27-year-old Marine sniper from Houston.  "When we're out with the Iraqi people and they find out he's a doctor, it helps us out too.  Him helping to patch up a wound out there has saved our lives later at night. I'm convinced."

Pursley was one of the first to arrive on the scene to treat the wounded after Marines were attacked with rockets and mortars at Camp Zadan.  After the incident, he said he was told something that has stuck with him ever since.

"A guy came up to me after that and said, 'I saw you work out there.  If I ever get hit, I want it to be you who's working on me,'" Pursley recalled.  "That was the biggest compliment I could've gotten as a corpsman."

Navy Chief Petty Officer Jason M. Foree, the battalion's senior enlisted corpsman from Tuscaloosa, Ala., also has only praise for his sniper-turned-corpsman.

"The things he learned as a sergeant is why he is as good as he is today," Foree explained.  "There are some (Sailors) who work better inside of the battalion aid station.  Pursley isn't one of them.  His competence - medically and tactically - make him an invaluable asset to his platoon."

Pursley takes all his praise in stride, however.  Remaining calm and collected through even the most hectic situation, the humble smile never leaves his face.  Although he isn't where he thought he would be, he's glad things turned out the way they did.

"I still want to be a SEAL, but some things weren't meant to be," Pursley said.  "I've been blessed to have been able to do everything I've done.  I'm just thankful I've made it through it all."