KORAT ROYAL THAI AIR FORCE BASE, Thailand --
Since the early 1800s, Navy corpsmen have been the backbone of naval and Marine Corps healthcare.
In every significant battle in Navy and Marine Corps history, Navy corpsmen have fought side-by-side with Marines and sailors doing all they can to keep their fellow service members alive.
With different illnesses and injuries encountered daily, Navy corpsmen’s job proficiency is constantly tested.
During deployments or back at their home station, Marine Corps Air Station Beaufort, S.C., the VMFA(AW)-553 medical team is tasked with keeping medical readiness above the standard and providing healthcare to approximately 300 Marines with a staff of three.
“(Marine wing support squadrons) have a lot more corpsmen, so you have more leniencies in your job,” said Petty Officer 2nd Class Gabriel B. Fortes, Marine All-Weather Fighter Attack Squadron 533 medical leading petty officer. “In MWSS, you have more people watching your back. Here, you have to know your stuff and work by yourself.”
VMFA(AW)-533 falls under the Unit Deployment Program, a program created by the commandant of the Marine Corps to reduce the number of unaccompanied tours and improve unit continuity by deploying units to the Western Pacific for approximately six-month intervals.
Unlike hospital corpsmen attached to clinics, honor roll corpsmen graduates are selected from their military occupational specialty school to serve as the primary caregivers for squadrons like VMFA(AW)-533.
“The main difference between a corpsman at a clinic and a corpsman in an operational billet is that a corpsman in an operational billet tends to work more independently,” said Lt. Justin M. Whitley, VMFA(AW)-533 flight surgeon. “They’re more directly involved with hands-on patient care, making decisions for themselves and treating things on the scene.”
In order to be attached to a fixed wing squadron or an infantry unit, graduating corpsmen must take the first step by choosing to be operational.
“Initially, you usually go through an MWSS to understand how the squadrons work because most MWSS have a lot of corpsmen to supervise you,” said Fortes. “If you excel in MWSS, they’ll pick you to fill those positions as senior corpsmen leave.”
After being selected and assigned, the Navy corpsmen are tasked with maintaining medical readiness for the selected squadron with a staff of approximately one corpsman to every 100 Marines.
“I think what separates an average corpsman from a good corpsman is not just being able to see a patient and get facts, but to take those facts and develop a diagnosis and treatment plan going forward,” said Whitley. “And that’s what being operational gives you; the ability to assess the patient and make a plan.”
Not only do operational corpsman treat their patients,they also have to consider the most mission essential treatment when administering patient care.
“The pilots have to maintain their flight status, so when somebody comes in, we try to find a way to treat them in a way that will take care of them but at the same time, won’t damage their capability of deploying and operating,” said Fortes.
With such a small staff, the responsibilities of an operational corpsman may seem stressful, but there are several benefits with the job.
“You can do more out here simply because you’re the only person out here,” said Fortes. “In a hospital, you might have a nurse fighting with you to do a stitch or give an (intravenous). Here, you’re the only one who knows how to do it.”
Along with gaining hands-on training in their job, operational corpsmen also get more career advancement options being attached to a squadron.
“They say it’s a lot easier for corpsmen attached to squadrons to pick up rank faster,” said Seaman Daniel E. Truelove, VMFA(AW)-533 aviation medicine technician.
Above the professional benefits, both Truelove and Fortes said the biggest benefit is gaining the respect, camaraderie and brotherhood from the Marines they are tasked to care for.
“I love my Marines, and they know that,” said Truelove. “I can go out there and PT with them or just have a good time with them any time. I wouldn’t have it any other way.”
“Especially in an operational situation, corpsmen really are the backbone of medical,” said Lance Cpl. Dustin Fesler, VMFA(AW)-533 maintenance control expeditor. “We couldn’t function without them. They ensure our safety.”
During the rest of the UDP deployment and beyond, the VMFA(AW)-533 medical team will strive to maintain medical readiness for their fellow service members and keep VMFA(AW)-533 in the fight.