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Corpsman Up! U.S. Navy Hospital Corps Turns 114 Years Old

Corpsmen treating wounded Marine on Eniwetok Island 

“You guys are the Marine’s doctors; There’s no better in the business than a Navy Corpsman….”  Lieutenant General Lewis B. “Chesty” Puller, U.S.M.C

The numbers speak volumes: 22 Congressional Medals of Honor,174 Navy Crosses, 31 Distinguished Service Crosses (US Army Decoration), 946 Silver Stars1582 Bronze Stars, 22 Ships named after Corpsmen and 2012 Corpsmen killed in action since President William McKinley the establishment of the rating by by Congress which was into law on June 17th 1898.

Known by Marines and Sailors simply as “Doc” Corpsmen have served everywhere the Navy and Marine Corps have served or fought since the Spanish American War. The rating is quite remarkable because the Corpsmen are often the only medical support immediately available to sailors and Marines at “the tip of the spear.”

As medicine and surgery became more scientific and advanced during the industrial and scientific revolutions of the 1800s military physicians began to lobby for trained assistants.  Early in our nation’s history it was up to individual ships Captains to appoint assistants to the ship’s surgeons. Initially known by the British Royal Navy nickname “Lolly Boys” which referred to the ladle of porridge given to the sick, the men helped the surgeon prepare the operating area usually found deep in the hold of the ship on the Orlop Deck before battle and to help keep the surgeon supplied with hot irons to cauterize wounds and to sand the deck to keep the surgeon from slipping on the blood of the wounded.  The terminology would change throughout the years and in 1841 a senior rating of Surgeon’s Steward was introduced and later changed to Apothecary which required the completion of a course in basic pharmacy.

By the 1870s pressure was growing for reform of the rating but it was not until 1897, 10 years after the US Army established its enlisted Hospital Corps that the reformers were successful and the Surgeon General and his supporters were able to convince the Navy Department to push for the reforms in Congress.

The new Corpsmen served throughout the fleet and with the Marines and the rating was expanded to include two Apprentice ranks, three grades of Petty Officers and a Chief Petty Officer who were called Pharmacist Mates. Following World War Two the Navy changed the name of the rating to the generic term that Sailors and Marines had used for years, Hospital Corpsman or Hospitalman. The current rank structure was adopted in 1958.

Corpsmen with the Marines in every battle since their inception in 1898. They have  served aboard ships and often are the sole medical provider. Those serving in such capacity receive additional training as Independent Duty Corpsmen.  Those that serve with the Marines receive additional training at Field Medical Service School while many others receive specialized training in various technical fields within the Medical Department.  Many serve with the Marines, EOD, SEALS, Seabees and in Field Hospitals in Afghanistan caring for US and Allied wounded as well as local Afghan civilians. They can be found around the world wherever the Navy is in humanitarian and operations from Haiti to Indonesia. In every clime and place Corpsmen have accompanied Marines and Sailors to war. Today over 20,000 active duty and reserve Corpsmen serve aboard ships, in medical facilities, with EOD, Special Warfare, the Seabees and with the Fleet Marine Force. Many Navy Physicians, Nurses and Medical Service Corps Officers began their careers as Corpsmen.

As a Navy Brat a lot of my medical care as a child came from Corpsmen. One saved me from an overdose of baby Aspirin when I was about 3 years old when we were stationed in the Philippines, another set a cast on my arm when I broke it jumping my bike across a ditch in 6th grade. As an adult I have had the honor of serving with Corpsmen in the Fleet Marine Force, aboard the USS Hue City, in Iraq, with Navy EOD and for the past four years in Naval Medical Centers and Hospitals.

Corpsmen are amazing, especially when you need them.

Happy Birthday “Doc.”

Peace

Padre Steve+

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