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Combat medics uphold proud tradition

31 May 2004 | Cpl. Shawn C. Rhodes

Make no bones about it.  Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Kawika Segundo knows he has one of the most important jobs in Iraq.

"I think I have the most sacred honor of the battlefield," said Segundo, a hospital corpsman with 2nd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment, on duty in Iraq with 1st Marine Division.  "I'm responsible for keeping families together.  That's our job here as corpsmen - to bring a father, brother or son back to his family alive."

A select group of people have protected and saved Marines on the battlefield for more than one hundred years.  These highly trained doctors of the trenches - corpsmen - are an indispensable part of the fight during and away from battle. 

For the Camp Lejeune, N.C.-based battalion, the 'docs' are more than just caregivers.  They play the roles of doctor, friend, psychologist, father and sometimes mother - to America's elite force of fighters.

"I've been through a lot of nice, well-paying jobs before I joined the Navy," said Segundo, a 31-year-old from Maui, Hawaii.  "Nothing compares to the gratification this job gives me.  I can't hold my head any higher."

Segundo and the rest of the battalion realize what an enormous responsibility they carry on their shoulders.  They are often the only medical professional for a group of 60 or more Marines, these young men.   Many are right out of high school and are responsible for keeping their guys healthy when in the rear and alive on the battlefield.

"My wish is that I never have to use the skills I have on the battlefield," said Navy Seaman Bernard J. Eder, a 29-year-old corpsman from Crescent Springs, Kan.  "It means one of my guys has gotten hurt."

Still, he knows there are high expectations from the Marines with whom he serves. 

"The better corpsman you are, the more the Marines will trust you," Eder explained.  "Trust is essential.  It makes you approachable.  If you're not approachable, you can't do your job."

Ministering to physical ailments is only part of the job.  Good corpsmen are a bit philosopher, a bit psychologist and even sometimes, part-time spiritual advisor.

"Some Marines have a lot of stress and that only gets worse on the battlefield," explained Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Jason M. Barry, a 21-year-old from Alachua, Fla.  "Whatever issue comes up, whether it's personal, medical or even religious, we're there to deal with it if we can.  A good corpsman is the guy you can tell anything to.  If we can't deal with it on our level, we can tell them where to go to find help."

Eder agreed.

"It's not like the guys we treat are this big group of faceless people," he said.  "We live with them every day.  Everything they go through we're right there beside them."

Barry explained that in a firefight, the Marines don't have time for the corpsmen to uncurl from a ball and run up to an injured man.  He said if a corpsman isn't up front in the action, he can't do his job - when seconds could mean life and death.

"These guys get to be more than just 'your platoon.'  They become your friends, your brothers," Barry said.  "You worry about them like a father would on a mission and when you can't be out there with them you worry about them like a mom does, not wanting them to get hurt."

There still exists a certain rivalry between them, even though the corpsmen are often the first and only line of defense for wounded Marines.  Making sure they can keep up with the Marines in everything they do, many corpsmen use it to their advantage.

"It's a deeply rooted honor to serve with the Marines," Segundo explained.  "All the corpsmen in the past who have fought alongside Marines and died saving them have gained us a lot of respect today."

He added that respect must be maintained by corpsmen never thinking of themselves better or worse than the Marines with whom they serve.

"We have to be just a proficient as a Marine is in everything they do - from shooting to tactical maneuvers," Segundo said. 

He added corpsmen participate in everything the Marines do in order to keep sharp.  

"I often get the question about us wearing the Eagle, Globe and Anchor on our uniforms," said Navy Petty Officer 3rd Class Michael R. Rodriguez, a corpsman with the unit. 

The EGA is the symbol of the Marine Corps and is akin to a religious symbol to many Marines. 

"I guess it's because some think we're hospital orderlies," said the 33-year-old from Baypoint, Calif.  "The reason we take pride in wearing it is, we've been fighting - and dying - beside Marines for a long time."

Still, don't take them for just a grunt corpsman.  Corpsmen become better trained to deal with injuries they might treat as progress is made in the field of medicine.  Many in the battalion are certified Emergency Medical Technicians and have lifesaving courses under their belts in addition to the training they receive from the Navy.

"The corpsmen of today are better trained and equipped than I was when I was their rank," said Navy Petty Officer 1st Class Christopher T. Brown, a 34-year-old from Albany, Ga.  "I often can't tell who's a corpsman and who isn't when I visit the line companies.  Our guys look just like the Marines and do everything they do."

Living, fighting and coming home with their Marines are what a corpsman cherishes in the field, Brown said.

The dirty, tired and sweaty sailors know they could have life a little easier.  There are many Navy medical personnel who never work outside of the sanitary conditions of a modern hospital.  But that's not a life these guys see in their future. 

Their lives are bonded with their Marines.

"I'm not supposed to be an active combatant," Rodriguez explained.  "I carry an M-16 and a pistol.  Making sure the Marines here survive is my job.  I won't hesitate to fire back if I'm treating an injured Marine and his life is still in danger."

Barry added that in some of the darkest moments on the battlefield, when they're patching Marines up under fire, is when it's the most rewarding.

"It's the greatest feeling in the world when I can tell him he'll be ok, that he'll make it home to see his family again," he said.