The Battlefield Saints
Some names omitted to protect identities
"What draws men in initially is, 'hey, ... I wanna jump, I wanna dive,'"said Chief Hospital Corpsman Danny Lang, a 2nd Marines Special Operations Battalion (MSOB) SARC.
"That's what lures you in, that's what lures any young man into wanting to be a SARC (Special Amphibious Reconnaissance Corpsman/FMF Reconnaissance Corpsman HM8427)," said Lang.
Even the brochures handed out at the MARSOC public affairs office were tactical, all black with a shadowy Special Amphibious Reconnaissance Corpsman logo emblazoned on the cover. The description in the trifold, typed in tiny unassuming white text, states that SARCs are Corpsmen that provide medical and operational services for Fleet Marine Forces and Marine Forces Special Operations Command personnel engaged in direct action and reconnaissance operations. They provide medical services that most fleet Corpsmen provide, such as dental exams, nutritional counseling and sick call. But phrases like "direct action," "irregular and unconventional warfare," and especially "tactical" are peppered plentifully throughout. Bottom line up front: SARCs are engaged in every aspect of operations ... but the most important thing they do is save lives.
"Everyone wants to do the cool guy stuff but what keeps you in is the medicine," said Lang.
And that's what SARCs will say when asked to recount a war story. It's about the medicine.
"The wives, they know what you do; they know you're a medic," said a SARC from 2nd Marines Special Operations Battalion (MSOB) who wished to remain anonymous. "I've helped a bunch of their kids when they get cut playing on a fence or whatever. So the wives, they know, they see their husband's life in your hands. They look at you to bring their husband back and that's a huge weight, burden and responsibility."
On his most recent deployment, he lost two Marines and three others were injured on his team when an insider threat turned on them and opened fire. In a far and inaccessible location for a quick medevac, the fate of the team depended on his skills.
One of the Marines was shot in the chest and the needle decompression technique used to alleviate the pressure in his lung was not working. He performed a more invasive surgical procedure at this point and inserted a tube into his chest. All of this was performed on scene.
"We had to drain out the blood and the air that was crushing his lungs. If it wasn't for the advanced surgery capabilities that we had, we wouldn't have been able to save his life."
Saving his teammate's life was a defining moment for this SARC, but he said the real emotions set in when they returned home.
"His wife wouldn't stop hugging me and thanking me for protecting her best friend and bringing him back home. They'd been together since high school. You can say, you know, obviously thank you for saving my husband and bringing him back, but it's more of the emotions, you know, the heartfelt tears and the shattering of their soul and their body in front of you when they realize how close they came to losing the most precious thing in their life. The only thing that was the difference between losing them or not was the skill set that we had."
It was always "we" when SARCs describe what it was like to save a man's life, that ever-present humility. The docs teach their Marines combat medicine while attached to the teams and they all have a hand in the rescue efforts.
"We interview every candidate personally, one of the SARCs will interview him, and we're looking for that sense of humility," said Command Master Chief Jody Fletcher, the Navy's senior enlisted leader at Marine Special Operations Command (MARSOC). "We're looking for the guy who wants to join an organization of people who don't want to boast about what they do. They just want to serve their country."
Lang said casualties are usually not a one person job so the SARCs train their Marines up to have an equal hand in saving lives. The SARC just takes control of the situation as the medical expert. But it's not always a Marine that needs saving. During Operation Enduring Freedom, many of the SARCs were embedded in small villages to treat local nationals in Afghanistan, where the adversary was the cultural beliefs toward medicine instead of engaging insurgents in firefights.
"I've treated 42 injured children throughout my career. Whether from IEDs (Improvised Explosive Device), RPG's (rocket propelled grenades) or other means," said a SARC from 2nd Marines Special Operations Battalion (MSOB) who wished to remain anonymous. "They just get caught in the crossfire so you've got a 6-year-old kid with blown off limbs and if it wasn't for you, he'd be dead. Through programs like Red Crescent (equivalent of American Red Cross) they're able to give them prosthetic legs...and these kids are able to have a life where otherwise it would have just been extinguished."
Child casualties seemed to be a common theme in talking with the SARCs. All of the docs had a story about a child they helped save and they shared those experiences without hesitation. Even with the glaring cultural differences separating Afghanistan from the United States, family is a universal concept. Taking the time to treat EVERYONE regardless of their nationality forces the local nationals to make a choice; give in to the insurgents who destroy with no regard for their own countrymen or accept help from the U.S. service members who save lives with no regard for color, country or religious background
"What you end up doing is saving countless lives by saving that one baby, treating those burns, treating that infection," said Chief Hospital Corpsman John Martinez. "In Afghanistan in 2011, we worked on a few kids and our IED threat went down dramatically. It almost ended all firefights."
Silent Professionals, Silent Wars
Completing high priority missions and saving lives does little to make the SARC community any less obscure. Fletcher challenged me to ask a few dozen Sailors who "Doc" is. His theory was that they'd point in the direction of the nearest hospital Corpsman. Ask a few dozen Sailors what a SARC is, however, and there is a significantly high chance that none of them will know.
Fletcher places the current number of SARCs at less than half of what the Navy needs to fill the current billets and build a growing structure throughout different organizations within the Navy and Marine Corps.
"We need more SARCs to replace the guys that've been turnin' and burnin' over the past decade, just continuously deploying, and we need those guys that are continually deploying to come back to shore duty and give back what they've learned," said Martinez, adding that the SARCs and their families suffer because they deploy more often than they would in a fully manned rate.
So shouldn't the Navy be up in arms about this lack of manning for our fighting forces? Fletcher pointed out that the Navy is working diligently to provide qualified candidates but the biggest hurdle is awareness of such a small NEC throughout the Fleet.
"They are out there just doing amazing things, but they're unwilling to talk about it because they see it as just doing their job," said Fletcher. "They're proud to do it and they're proud to serve among their Marine brothers ... but they don't necessarily want to talk about it."
Master Chief Hospital Corpsman Darryl Beauchamp, the Senior Enlisted Advisor for Marine Special Operations Regiment, said the SARC way of doing business is a proficient and humble mindset instilled in the younger SARCs by the older operators.
"A key takeaway for me was to always be that silent professional, never looking to boast about yourself or thump your own chest and just let your actions speak for themselves," said Beauchamp.
But the truth is the SARCs actions are screaming, and it's time to start listening. Only a few days of contact with the SARC community bore fruit to the realization that this wasn't going to be a story about epic battles against insurgents. This story was about another war, an internal numbers war as silent as the professionals themselves.
"Ninety percent of this job sucks," said a SARC from 2nd Marines Special Operations Battalion (MSOB) who wished to remain anonymous. "Nobody wants to put on a heavy 150-pound ruck sack plus deuce gear, go into the freezing rain and ruck around for 10 days straight. Nobody wants to get in the water where it's always freakin' cold. Nobody wants to get shot at constantly. But it's the other 10 percent that makes people do it. Ten percent of this job doesn't touch anything you'll ever do. You suffer through that 90 percent and realize that (the remaining) 10 percent ... is the excitement and adventure of jumping out of an airplane at 30,000 feet or more, diving into a mission and the brotherhood."
And besides that exciting 10 percent, and the ability to save lives, Fletcher cited an impressive number of proficiency and special duty pays as incentives to join the SARC community. Basic Airborne, combatant diving, free fall jumping and handling explosives each earn at least an extra $150 a piece in a SARCs pocket. Just being a SARC is its own special duty pay. Add on the ability to accrue back to back sea pay and a good chance for a reenlistment bonus and SARCs undoubtedly receive a significantly larger pay check.
Martinez, the non-commissioned officer in charge (NCOIC) of the Special Operations Combat Medic (SOCM) course, said candidates earn around 72 college credits for graduating the two year pipeline. He sees a lot of guys get in, do their term, then get out and go straight to physician's assistant, med school or nurse anesthetist school. No high interest student loans, the ability to save up hundreds of dollars of special duty pay and apply the Montgomery GI bill to med school all draw in candidates.
"They get top pick because of the skill set they already have," Martinez said. "The civilian sector knows what a SARC has to offer from our schooling, application in theatre, as well as the discipline we get in the military."
The SOCM course drills trauma into the SARCs for 36 weeks and serves as the pipeline's medical training capstone before they do their clinical rotations at hospitals.
Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Stephen Brooks said the course of instruction was the most difficult part of the pipeline he endured. The beginning of the course, or Trauma One, was a scholastic intensive part of the pipeline where Brooks and his classmates learned the basics of trauma medicine. Dirt caked his uniform and exhaustion was written plain on his face but he stood erect, arms crossed in front of him with purpose.
"Trauma two was like getting shot out of a cannon," Brooks said. "We start with TPA, or trauma patient assessment, then go to CTM, or combat trauma management. And those two things are all hands on. Absolutely no books. No classroom. You're out back; you're working all day long."
This comprehensive course crams multiple years of Trauma instruction into just a little over 9 months, including the clinical rotation, a sought after skill not only in the civilian medical community but also in combat. Martinez stressed that the one guy on every team that has to be composed at all times is the SARC. When everything is chaos around them, the SARC has to receive and decipher all of his surroundings and apply what he knows to a patient while maintaining tactical situational awareness. He describes the SOCM curriculum as a mash-up of civilian sector trauma and tactics that active duty, GS employees and contractors bring back from in-theatre experience. Applying tactically sound practices in the field while running through treatment scenarios as well as the medical knowledge SARCs accrue from the pipeline is the purpose of SOCM.
"It's crucial that you have a guy that's been tested and tried and hasn't quit," Martinez said.
He cites the ending block of the SOCM course, a three day continuous event modeled after prolonged field care scenarios, as the final test of this critical skill.
"You're not always going to get a patient medevac'd right away," Martinez said. "You may have to sit on him for three days. It's probably one of the most important parts of this course."
Martinez deployed to Iraq in 2006. An IED blast took out most of his team, many of them severely burned on more than 50 percent of their body. He worked on them for almost an hour, running back and forth to put out the fires burning on his teammate's clothes and dragging people out of the burning High Mobility Multipurpose Wheeled Vehicle (HMMWV). He tried to establish airways and administer intravenous therapy (IV) before the medevac came and Martinez said he was very fortunate that the helicopter responded quickly.
"It would have been a catastrophic situation if there was not a medevac platform arriving at the time it did. Three members remained alive for about 18 days, one person was trapped in vehicle and burned to death and one survived. It was the longest 53 minutes of my life.
"Going through that scenario to this day, I don't know what I would've done if I didn't have that bird (medevac) and going through this course, it's definitely broadened my mind to treating prolonged field care. I'm glad we initiated this block as part of the curriculum."
A long training pipeline, combat engagements and losing fellow service members did not deter Martinez from staying SARC.
"It's an honor to have brothers alongside you, training every day, going into combat and coming back alive," said Martinez. "There's no greater reward than that. Few are chosen and the bonds you make, the friendships you make, will never end. That's why I do it."
Lang said what keeps SARCs serving is the brotherhood.
"At the end of the day what are you left with? Stories. Pieces of metal that you get to wear," said Lang. The only things that really matter are the people that you've met, the relationships you've created and your family."
If you're interested in becoming a SARC, contact your Career Counselor or visit www.reconcorpsman.com for more information.