Yuma, AZ -- Historically, the Navy hospital corpsman has been vital to the lives of Marines. Known as “Doc” by their fellow enlisted, these sailors have earned their place among Marines as the universally respected, invaluable saviors of men and women in the chaos of combat.
For the search and rescue crew aboard Marine Corps Air Station Yuma, Ariz., the hospital corpsman is an integral part of the mission to provide expedient and tactical medical assistance in the harsh desert terrain.
In the most literal sense, SAR corpsmen aboard MCAS Yuma answer the call duty and fly to the rescue. Whether a civilian emergency or a military response, the crew is always at the ready to tackle any situation that comes through the wire.
“The corpsmen here are the ones that leave the aircraft; either rappelling or jumping out low enough to the ground or just landing and going into the situation,” said HM2 Petty Officer 2nd Class Ryan P. Mooney, the leading petty officer with Headquarters and Headquarters Squadron SAR. “On a regular basis, we’re doing rappels, we’re doing hoists and we’re keeping everybody proficient in what we would do if we were to get called out to an actual rescue.”
SAR corpsmen undergo specialized training to meet the particular demands unique to their medical field.
After graduating from Navy recruit training, future corpsmen are shipped to their three month-long Corpsman Alpha School, where subjects like corpsman history, basic patient care, first aid and anatomy are introduced. It’s also where hospital corpsmen first receive their orders to their respective fields.
“I went from ‘A’ school to Pensacola, Fla., for a month for air crew candidate school, where you learn the swimming aspect and your basic air crewman skills,” said Seaman Alexander Camacho, a SAR medical technician with H&HS. “You’re taught specific things, like how to egress a helicopter if it were to crash over a body of water.”
According to Camacho, a helicopter is top heavy, so corpsmen must learn how to escape the aircraft safely should it crash and start sinking upside down into a body of water. They are instructed on how to find a reference point of exit, unbuckle and use the emergency hatches, the appropriate use of flares, different makes and models of aircraft, and the basic safety precautions every crew member on board must be conscious of.
“From there, I went to flight medic school in Fort Rucker, Ala., for a month. That’s where you learn your ACLS [advanced cardiac life support], your pediatric advanced life support, trauma life support – it’s a very intense, academic school,” added Camacho, a native of West Palm Beach, Fla.
According to Camacho, qualifying is not an easy task for SAR corpsmen-in-training. They are required to learn how to use their equipment and adapt to different emergency situations, while completing the intensive and time-consuming course work while conforming to military standards of personal conduct and fulfilling duty obligations.
For some, like Camacho, training continues with follow-on schooling. He received field training and was taught wilderness survival at Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape (SERE) School in Kittery, Maine.
“At SERE school, I learned how to survive off the land and resist interrogations, things like that. I graduated from that school and then got shipped over to Camp Pendleton for the FMF [Fleet Marine Force] training battalion – and that’s eight weeks long,” said Camacho. “We learned how to patrol, how to shoot a rifle, how to wear the Marine Corps’ uniform properly, rank and recognition, Marine Corps history, Navy history, a lot on the history of corpsmen and the grunt units working together.”
For participating corpsmen, FMF training covers trauma care, blast injuries, penetrating lung injuries, and the use of tourniquets. The hikes over the infamous hills aboard Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif., are also part of their syllabus.
Aboard MCAS Yuma, the corpsmen’s routine includes a regular training schedule that requires them to take flights and review possible scenarios. Hoists, rappels, extractions, short hauls and night training flights are all conducted routinely to ensure each crew member is proficient.
“Heat exhaustion - that’s a big thing. A few summers back, we had a lot of rescues in support of WTI [Weapons and Tactics Instructors Course] with a lot of the ground units out in the surrounding ranges - units that are from different areas, not acclimated to the weather, maybe not hydrating as much as they should, things like that,” said Mooney, a native of Monroe, N.Y. “We had an ejection last summer from one of the pilots that was from a harrier squadron training out here. We had a crop duster crash back in 2010, where the guy was stuck inside the aircraft on the side of a mountain.”
SAR corpsmen are on call at all times, enabling them to help as many people as possible, from car crash victims to stranded hikers. Being embedded with a Marine unit serves as a reminder to the Navy corpsmen of just how close their bond is with their brother service.
“I think the crew chiefs and corpsmen at search and rescue have a really close relationship because we have to have a lot of trust in each other in what we do,” said Lance Cpl. Alex Strege, a SAR crew chief with H&HS and a native of St. George, Kan. “They’re very professional. Their job is very demanding, stressful, and I think they handle it really well.”
The medicine men flying in the skies over Yuma are always prepared for the unexpected. Be it over the Colorado River, the rocky Chocolate Mountains or on the I-95 highway, the general populace can rest assured that the SAR corpsmen are always at the ready.