Field Medical Service School (FMSS)
The Making of a Fleet Marine Force Corpsman
For seven boot camp-like, rifle-toting, blister-breaking weeks down south at Camp LeJeune, N.C., the Navy and Marine Corps team up at Field Medical Service School (FMSS) East to mold standard Navy-issue corpsmen into Sailors good enough for the Fleet Marine Force (FMF). The good ones will earn the Marines’ respect. The great ones earn the title, “Doc.”
“There are corpsmen and then there are ‘docs,’” said Marine Corps Staff Sgt. Richard Lister, an advisor at FMSS East. “A doc is someone you can count on. He’s someone in your platoon that when something happens to one of our fellow Marines, you can call on him and not have to worry. He’s your buddy, a comrade in arms, a person who you count on to cover your back, to lay down fire, dig fighting holes or do whatever the hell Marines are doing. That’s who a doc is.”
That’s why FMSS exists – because Marines need docs on the battlefield.
“If they [students] don’t look like Marines, act like Marines and talk like Marines,” said Hospital Corpsman 1st Class (FMF) John Buchanan, “the Marines aren’t going to like them, and worse, they aren’t going to trust them.”
And to the Marines, a corpsman they can’t trust is a corpsman they’d rather not have.
“A bad corpsman is worse than no corpsman at all,” said Buchanan, “because a corpsman who doesn’t know tactics, or walk, talk and act like a Marine is going to compromise the mission and get a lot of people killed.”
And the top priority at FMSS is saving Marine Corps lives.
The FMSS instructors teach their students this every day, and not because it’s part of a smart curriculum. They teach it because they’ve experienced it and believe in it, both as Marines and as corpsmen.
“The school prefers instructors with combat experience, people who have been to Iraq or Afghanistan recently,” said Buchanan. “It’s not mandatory, but they want the instructors to be able to explain first hand why things have to be a certain way. They want the instructors to be able to say why they have to have more discipline than the average Sailor, why they have to know combat tactics, why they have to know the Marine Corps customs and ceremonies. And they want them to be able to answer why because they experienced it, not because they read it in a manual.”
Drawing on that experience yields answers to many of the students’ questions, most of which, surprisingly, don’t center on staying out of harm’s way. One of the first things a good FMF corpsman learns at FMSS is that the very last thing he’s worried about is himself.
“In combat it goes through your mind, ‘OK, there’s a guy that got shot,’” said Buchanan. “And you say to yourself, ‘I can stay here and I’ll be safe. And if I do, that Marine’s probably going to die.’ And that’s every corpsman’s worse nightmare – not that we’ll get shot, but that we won’t be able to fix a Marine who’s hurt, that we won’t have the ability, the knowledge or the nerve to do it. And nobody knows whether they do or not until they do it.”
Still, having the self-confidence needed by a successful battlefield corpsman can grow at FMSS, and many of the scenarios the medical and Marine Corps advisors put their students through are centered on precisely that – building confidence in the Sailors’ knowledge and their abilities. The students are taught what the Marine Corps will demand of them from the very first day with boot camp-style inspections, relentless physical fitness training and unyielding tolerances for Marine Corps discipline, all the while being tested academically both in the classroom and in the field.
Being book- or street-smart alone isn’t enough to make it as an FMF corpsman. You have to be both because being with Marines means always thinking outside the box, way outside the box.
“The Marines are a different animal than anything known to man,” said HM2(FMF) Shannon Book, an FMSS instructor. “They take what little they have and do a lot with it – all the time. As corpsmen, we need to be prepared to do that just as well as them, if not better, and be ready for situations you won’t find in any field manual.”
And by situations, FMSS instructors are usually talking about combat. And these days going into combat is no longer a what-if scenario, but a when and where. The FMSS instructors prepare their students for that, too.
“Students ask us about combat all the time,” said Buchanan, “and we have to answer them carefully, but we always answer them honestly.”
Still, the combat veterans know no amount of training or lecturing is going to make anybody, especially corpsmen ready for war.
“No matter how hard you try to get ready for combat, you’re never ever truly prepared for it,” said Book. “There’s nothing else on earth like war. It’s not simple. It’s not fun. And it’s definitely not cool.”
And without setting foot on the battlefield some students have already felt the realities of war. For some it is a wake-up call, while for others it provides confirmation that they’re going “greenside” for all the right reasons.
“When I saw my first Marine come in from combat,” said HN Patrick Coyle, a student stationed at Naval Hospital Camp LeJeune prior to classing up for FMSS, “it just reaffirmed in me that there was a job out there that needed to be done, and I wanted to be one of those people who makes a difference. When these guys got hurt, there was a corpsman who did their initial assessment and kept them alive well enough to get to me. They didn’t lose their limbs, they didn’t lose their life and that’s what we’re here to do – save Marine lives.”
Coyle’s mindset is precisely what FMSS instructors hope to instill in all their graduates, and if history is any indication, whatever they’re doing works because Navy corpsmen are one of the most combat decorated rating in the Navy, and most of those medals were earned by corpsmen serving with their Marines.
It’s a glory only a select few dare to chase.
“I knew if I chose greenside there’d be a greater chance I might go to war,” said HN Maurice Butler, an FMSS student. “But my wife and I pray, and we prepare for the worst and hope for the best. Even with the dangers, this is definitely where I need to be to become a great corpsman.”
Butler’s desire to become an FMF corpsman stems from a reputation the Marine Corps has for expecting a lot more responsibility from its junior personnel, especially their corpsmen. And it’s a character trait FMSS instructors look for on the very first day of school.
“We can tell within a few days if a corpsman has it or he doesn’t,” said Lister, “and by that I mean discipline. A lot of petty officers show up here and they’ve never been in charge of anybody. So, we put them in charge of people. If they don’t do the job right we fire them, and don’t think twice about putting an HN or HNSA in charge of a whole platoon [of students] if they can do the job. And believe me those fired petty officers will listen to that HN or HNSA because if they don’t, they have to answer to me.”
The Marine Corps’ straight forward, show-me attitude encourages young Sailors like Butler to prove their worthiness to the FMSS instructors, their shipmates and themselves. And that’s exactly what brought Butler to FMSS.
“When I went to the naval hospital for my first assignment out of “A” school, they put me to work in supply,” said Butler. “That’s not where I’m going to get the hands-on experience I need to be a good corpsman. Going greenside, I‘ll have a lot more people depending on me to know what I have to do, and I’ll have the opportunity to do it. By serving with the Marine Corps I’ll learn more about what a corpsman ought to be sooner rather than later.”
Buchanan understands why Sailors like Butler gravitate towards the Marine Corps way of life.
“As an E-2 in the Navy, if you’re on a ship or in a hospital, you don’t have a whole lot of responsibility,” said Buchanan. “When I went to Desert Storm with the Marines as an E-2, I was 17 years old, but I had an immense amount of responsibility, more than I really wanted. I had a group of Marines whose medical care was assigned to me – just me. I was in charge of everything that happened to them. I had their medical records. I was in charge of making sure their immunizations were up to date.
“If they got hurt I had to fix them, and if I got hurt they had to fix me. You’re never going to be a leader of a group of individuals in a hospital as an E-2, but in the Marine Corps, when it comes to medical care for the Marines, you are. And that’s the most rewarding thing there is, to take a group of people like that into combat and bring them back alive”
While no experience outside the realm of actual combat prepares a Sailor for what awaits him on today’s battlefields, FMSS gives their students the kind of instructors and life tools they need to reach their full potential out in the field.
“Whether or not FMSS prepares you for everything you’ll see in combat is a tricky question to answer,” said Buchanan, “because this is an entry-level school. When I went through, they taught you how to apply a bandage, how to stop bleeding, etc., but when I was over there during Operations Desert Shield/Desert Storm I was scared. I wasn’t scared I was going to get shot or something like that. No, I was scared I was going to make a mistake or hurt somebody. Things are much different now for the corpsmen going through FMSS because we work hard to build their self-confidence.
I don’t think they have the same apprehensions coming out of here that I did in 1990.”
War stories fresh from the front lines of Iraq defend Buchanan’s beliefs.
“When I graduated from FMSS,” said HM3(FMF) Paul Haggerty, Weapons Company, 3rd Battalion, 8th Marines, Camp LeJeune, N.C., “I had the idea that the training at FMSS was kind of lax, and that I would never be sent to a front-line Marine platform because I worked at a naval hospital. I was wrong. When I got orders telling me I was deploying with 3/8 I was nervous because I thought I wouldn’t be ready. But it turns out that the training at FMSS was everything I needed out there. It was right on cue.”
Haggerty deployed to Iraq Jan. 17, 2005, and returned safely Aug. 14. Less than a month after stepping foot in the desert, he was put to the test as a FMSS graduate.
“It was early February, two weeks after the elections,” said Haggerty, “and my platoon was rolling down the main supply route when a seven-ton truck was hit by an improvised explosive device [IED], and shots were fired. It was another platoon’s convoy, and they had no corpsmen in that platoon. It was just me. And there were five to six wounded Iraqi civilians dying right in front of me. They had massive trauma, sucking chest wounds and there I was taking care of five, six people all by myself. None of the Marines were hurt, and I saved all the civilians.
Help eventually arrived, but what was so weird about it was when it happened I was moving so fast. It was just like the training at FMSS – battle assessments, ABCs, prioritizing patients, etc. The training was almost exactly to what the real situation was, and I never hesitated.”
The words, “never hesitated” are music to the ears of any FMSS instructor as proof that what they teach down at Camp LeJeune their west-coast partner, FMSS West, Camp Pendleton, Calif., works.
And while stories like Haggerty’s are told and retold down at the school house with a smile, instructors and students alike know not every beginning will have a happy ending, no matter how well they train.
“The toughest thing I’ve had to deal with so far in my life was the loss of a loved one,” said Coyle. “And what I’m about to do will be tougher because when you live, eat, and sleep with Marines every day you build up a camaraderie that is every bit the same – if not stronger than your family back home. And there will probably come a time when I will lose a fellow Marine in the field. That will be
my toughest day.”
And it always will be, for a “doc.”