The corpsmen warned me the air would be thin up there, but I didn’t notice. This was my first combat patrol and like a child trapped in the dark, I was petrified.
The shoestring-narrow roads around the 6,000-foot mountains of Torkhem, Afghanistan make the battle-hardened Marines I was embedded with something the Taliban doesn’t – nervous.
The drivers, behaving more like tightrope walkers than desert warriors, eased their Humvees along the trails with one eye on the path and the other pragmatically scanning the limitless caves and nomad populations for the enemy.
I didn’t move – not a millimeter – while we climbed along paths so narrow that I honestly thought if I breathed too hard I’d tip us over the side, plummeting us more than a mile down to certain death.
I didn’t breathe. I didn’t blink. I waited for Taliban to ambush us from behind every rock, and there were a lot of rocks.
HN “Doc” Joseph Nededog, noticed my white knuckles.
“You know, I’ve been waiting for months for one of those goats to fall off the side of these mountains,” Nededog quipped. “They never do,” he said with a grin. I smiled and finally breathed.
That's what “Docs” do. They make everyone comfortable, when you’re a corpsman for Marines in the heart of an insurgent country, helping a photojournalist keep his lunch down and his lungs working is an easy day.
Nededog has seen worse.
After all, it wasn’t the enemy that made these combat veterans slow their pace, and rightfully so. It was Afghanistan itself, not the besieged Taliban, that claimed 3rd Platoon’s first soul in a Humvee rollover less than a month before this patrol.
Doc Nededog rolled that day too; still, he managed to treat his turret gunner who lay motionless, crushed between his weapon and the callous Afghanistan desert floor. It wasn’t enough. Third Platoon lost a Marine that day. Losing any Marine is terrible, but to these Marines, all Marines, the thought of losing a corpsman was unimaginable.
That’s how much Marines love their corpsmen.
“We’re a brotherhood out here. To lose a corpsman would be a huge blow,” said Marine SSgt. Matthew Morse, 3rd Platoon Commander, “maybe more than losing a Marine, because our corpsmen are our security blankets.”
And when you’re actively seeking to eradicate some of the world’s most dangerous guerrilla warfare fighters, you bring one hell of a security blanket.
“Corpsmen have the trauma training to react to any situation,” said Morse. “The corpsman who was in the vehicle that rolled and killed one Marine had enough awareness to recover from his injuries and still treat the Marine.”
And that’s what Marines expect corpsmen to do because history says they will. No single rating in the Navy is more decorated for valor than the hospital corpsman. The Marines don’t wonder if he will save their lives. They just wonder when.
“Being a Marine is hard enough, and we are their corpsmen,” said HMC Claude English, 1/3 Marines battalion medical chief. “We’re the ones who get them home to mom and dad. If they get hurt they come to you, and that’s why they cherish you.”
Rollovers are the least of Doc Nededog’s worries today. Just a few miles away from their convoy, black smoke billowed into the desert sky. Too far away to harm these Marines, it garnered no more than a passing glance. The sights and sounds of war don’t impress them anymore.
But the smells do.
The burning trash and raw sewage odors linger like cheap perfume, giving some areas of Afghanistan an unforgettable stench.
“The smell always reminds me that something isn’t right here,” said Nededog.
Hours later, back at Firebase Torkhem, officially called Forward Operating Base (FOB) Torkhem, the Marines found out that the smoke, caused by a fuel truck explosion from an improvised explosive device (IED), may have been meant for them.
“The Taliban know we’re here helping the Afghan border police,” said Morse. “It could have been ugly, but the border police did their job. They found the bomb in enough time to get everyone away. Nobody was hurt, not even the driver.”
Just a year ago, according to the international police mentors, that bomb would have made it through to its destination. The training is working.
And that was why Doc Nededog and his Marines climb and drive Afghanistan’s mountains and cross its deserts. They play big brother to the developing Afghan border police, helping them stand on their own. The idea being few bullies would pick a fight with a little brother with such a ferocious sibling. So far the plan worked, making 3rd platoon’s corpsmen – combat-wise – very bored.
Still, the Marines bring their corpsmen because bad things happen in war, just not today.
All in all, it was another quiet day for Nededog. Sure, he served as a faithful ear for a few Marines, handed out some doxycycline (anti-malaria medication), and made sure his warriors stayed hydrated, but no one had a sucking chest wound from a sniper’s bullet or severed limbs from a mine. No one was screaming, “Corpsmen Up!” Not today, anyway.
Savvy corpsmen learn to savor inactivity.
“Nobody deploys with Marines and expects to be bored,” said Nededog. “But here, where every day could be your last, boring is just fine.”
Still, Nededog is prepared for the worst and expects it every day.
His grooming began at Field Medical Service School (FMSS) East, Camp Johnson, N.C., one of two Fleet Marine Force (FMF) breeding grounds for Sailors these days. FMSS West, located at Camp Pendleton, Calif., serves as the other source.
There, Marines and Marine-tested Sailors instill the basic skills and instincts corpsmen will need to keep Marines’ minds squarely on their mission.
“Marines fight harder when they have a good corpsman with them,” said Morse. “Then they don’t worry about dying, they worry about the mission and that’s one of the best ways to make sure everyone comes home alive.”
Nededog, according to his platoon, is a good one.
“He’s one of us,” said Marine PFC Oscar Repreza.
And when a Marine says that, any seasoned corpsman knows no better compliment exists.
“First and foremost, you have to have their respect,” said English. “The most important factor in a successful FMF corpsman is to be able to adapt to the lifestyle of the Marine Corps. This means living and breathing every day like a Marine. You PT with them and you don’t fall out. You hike with them, you don’t fall out. On patrols, you know the hand signals because you are a Marine, a Marine who just happens to have a lot of medical knowledge.”
All of 3rd Platoon’s corpsmen follow that corpsman code of conduct.
“I was just an E-2 when I reported to my first Marine Corps unit,” said HM2 (FMF/SW/AW) Dennis Astor, Senior Corpsman, Forward Operating Base Torkhem. “I just did what they did. I stood their duties, volunteered for their working parties, etc. If a Marine asked for help, I gave it to them each and every time.”
If you don’t, you’re worthless to them.
“The worst thing a corpsman can do is to betray his Marines,” said Astor. “Drop your pack on a hike, quit or give excuses, or turn down a Marine who needs help and they’ll never forgive you. If you’re a good corpsman, the Marines will do anything in the world for you, but if you’re a bad corpsman they’ll hate you, and believe me you don’t want that.”
There’s nothing but respect for the corpsmen in 3rd Platoon. Their senior corpsmen earned it in another desert.
“In Iraq, my convoy was hit by an IED,” said Astor. “We lost several Marines that day, and I’m sure the only reason I didn’t die was because I am so small. The armor on the truck completely covered me.”
Wounded, he still treated his Marines. In fact, he refused orders home and returned to his unit months later to fight with them again. He still carries shrapnel in his head from that attack and is reminded of its presence on very cold Afghan mornings.
“They told me it would do more damage to remove it,” said Astor. “I really feel it with my Kevlar helmet on.”
Seasoned Marines have an even deeper respect for corpsmen.
“Honestly, sometimes corpsmen put Marines to shame because of what they can do,” said Morse. “They carry more weight than us because they carry what we carry, and all of their medical stuff.”
The corpsman, when he’s good, can help Marines with more than medicine. He can be a point of inspiration.
“If a Marine starts to get tired on a hike and sees the corpsman just chugging along it motivates him to keep going,” said Morse.
At Torkhem, all of 1/3’s Docs rotate through the different taskings of the platoon. Whether the Marines are patrolling up and down mountains, or hiking 25 miles along an alleged IED hot zone, any of 1/3’s corpsmen can do the job well enough for the Marines not to think about them.
“Humps are fun,” said Nededog. “The climbs can be steep around here, but we get through it. The Afghan National Army (ANA) used to pick on us because we didn’t climb as fast as they did on foot when we first got here. But we put them in our gear including body armor one time and they didn’t last five minutes.”
Nededog’s Marines got better at climbing. And so did the Docs.
Corpsmen like Doc Astor, HM2 (FMF) Scott “Doc” Kuniyuki, and Doc Nededog don’t push themselves so they can outshine the Marines. They do it so they will always be there for them. Because the greatest fear a corpsman has is that he won’t be able to help a Marine when he needs him.
“In the Marine Corps, there’s no such thing as [keeping]office hours,” said Astor. “In a regular clinic I might see patients from 0700-1700 every day, but with my Marines, I am available 24/7. We call it barracks medicine, and it matters.”
Docs are expected to do far more than hand out band-aids and Motrin. They fill the role of brothers, best friends, fathers, psychologists, chaplains or whatever the Marine needs at the time.
“Marines come to us for comfort, and it doesn’t matter if it’s physical, mental or emotional because we want our Marines to be healthy,” said Astor. “We look for problems and consult with them on a regular basis. They know we care every day, not just when they obviously need medical attention.”
It’s the job of the corpsmen regardless of their surroundings. The rigors of war can compound normally manageable problems. A fight with a wife, money problems or other bad news can take a Marine’s mind off his mission and get him hurt.
The Marines in Torkhem talk to their corpsmen because they know their corpsmen care.
“Anything can kill you here,” said Nededog, “an IED, a bullet, carelessness or just bad luck. We know we have to make sure our Marines are on top of their game every second of every day.”
While corpsmen are expected to be cure-alls for whatever ails a Marine, they know that their medical expertise only comes into play when it’s needed. Otherwise, they’re Marines in every sense of the word.
“Corpsmen need to know hand-to-hand combat skills because when they go out with Marines they might have to get down and dirty during a firefight,” said Sgt. Michael Belliston. “They might have to fight their way to a hurt Marine, or fight his way out with that Marine.”
So the corpsmen learn. They learn how to fight hand-to-hand, how to fire MK-19 grenade launchers, drive Humvees, rappel, take point on a patrol, etc. And they do it on the front lines, not just during training exercises back in the states.
The Sailors hold their own.
“I’ve always been impressed with the level of skills they possess from the relatively short amount of training they go through,” said Morse. “My corpsmen can jump on any weapon out here and perform as well as any Marine. Heck, I’ve met some docs who could outshoot every Marine in his platoon.”
Still, the Marines would rather the corpsmen not have to prove their battle readiness during a firefight.
“A good corpsman will put rounds downrange if we need him to,” said Morse, “but we try to keep them in the rear so they are around to save us.”
Aside from being a sure shot, Marine Corps leadership always makes sure their Marines understand Docs are approachable, but they’re still in the military. It’s a standard they set from the very beginning as part of the legendary discipline Marines use to win wars.
“I make it a point when I get to a new platoon to introduce our docs,” said Morse. “I’ll say something like ‘I know he’s doc, and he’s laid back, but you will respect him and treat him as you would any Marine’.”
The respect flows both ways.
“I also expect my corpsmen not to be afraid to speak up if they see one of my Marines doing something wrong.”
In short, the Marines expect their docs to be, well, a Marine.
And that’s the docs’ goal as well because that’s when they know they’re doing their job.
“The best compliment we can give a corpsman,” said Morse, “is to treat them just as we would any Marine.”