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Field Medical Service School
Leatherneck: Field Medical Service School

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Story by John Hoellwarth

FMSS places emphasis on treating wounds typically associated with combat. In this case, students applied the steps necessary to treat a "gunshot wound" to the leg. (Photo by John Hoellwarth)

The night of Aug. 19, 1969, was dark, even by Vietnam standards. For Lieutenant Colonel John P. Leonard, USMC (Ret), then a second lieutenant with Company A, 1st Battalion, First Marine Regiment, it seemed as if the night would never end. From his defensive position between Hills 55 and 34, southwest of Da Nang, Leonard was receiving reports of enemy movement from patrols that had been outside the wire since 10 p.m. It was just past midnight, and somewhere in the blackness connecting the bamboo shoots and rice paddies that stretched in all directions, the enemy lie in wait. An attack was imminent.

The first wave of the North Vietnamese Army's assault began with concentrated mortar fire, which gave way to sustained ground attacks that pierced into the Marines' lines. Some time during the initial attack, a combination of bullets and fragmentation from mortars and grenades knocked Leonard to the ground unconscious, where he remained with his wounds as the battle raged on for hours.

"My first experience while just regaining consciousness was the inability to move, to feel my legs, or to see anything out of my left eye," he would later recall. "There were people moving about, both Marines and NVA. By the light of a flare, I could just make out the face of 'Doc' Ronald Trowbridge, one of the company's corpsmen."

"Lieutenant, you're going to be all right!" Leonard recalled hearing. "Just don't move. I think your leg is gone, sir, but you're going to be all right."

As the corpsman dragged Leonard to safety, the wounded Marine lost consciousness again. He awoke five days later in a naval medical center, owing his life to a sailor.

In June of 1898, an act of Congress officially designated the Hospital Corps as part of the Navy's Medical Department. Since then, Navy corpsmen have taken personal responsibility for every drop of blood in the Marine Corps' veins, establishing a symbiotic relationship with the Corps that is acknowledged with reverence any time a Marine refers to the one he simply calls Doc.

What is it about these sailors that allows them to integrate so seamlessly
into the ranks of the few and the proud?

What is it about these sailors that allows them to integrate so seamlessly into the ranks of the few and the proud? By what rite of passage do they earn their place in the long line of corpsmen whose service among Marines has come to cement a legacy of heroism and proficiency in which Marines continue to trust their lives?

For answers to these questions, one need only look toward North Carolina, where Marine Corps Base, Camp Lejeune's Field Medical Service School trains the Navy's angels of mercy to serve side by side with the Marine Corps' angels of death.

The school's students arrive as basically trained corpsmen, wearing the blue dungarees that designate them as Navy men and women, each having little or no experience with Marines. By the time they graduate, they do so wearing the distinctive camouflage of the United States Marines and the equally distinctive expertise necessary to serve in the operating forces of the Corps.

FMSS is a "C" school, meaning it is not required of all corpsmen. However, those who haven't attended the school are not eligible to serve in a Marine unit. The result is a dichotomy in the Navy's Hospital Corps that divides its personnel into those who are "blue-side" corpsmen and those who have graduated from the school and serve with Marines on the "green side."

The school's Field Medical Service Technician Course is a seven-week indoctrination that provides the students with a background in combat survival, defensive techniques, the treatment of typical combat injuries and various other associated skills with which field medicine is closely related.

"Our primary mission is to prepare these sailors for service with the Fleet Marine Force. The Navy surgeon general has expressed a strong desire that Navy medicine prepare itself to do what it needs to do in a combat environment. That's what this school is all about," said Navy Captain Samuel P. Alford, the school's commanding officer. "Working in a hospital is a certain skill, but being able to do it in an austere environment is another thing entirely."

According to Master Chief Petty Officer Michael S. Munn, the school's senior enlisted man, the current war on terrorism places even more emphasis on the importance of the school's curriculum.

"We know they're going to see combat," he said. "We want them to be able to treat not just one casualty but multiple casualties under fire."

Treating casualties in combat, it turns out, involves more than just medical know-how, which is why much of the school's training cycle involves physical and mental conditioning geared toward preparing sailors for the rigors of a Marine Corps lifestyle. Accordingly, it is the school's contingent of Marine instructors who bring these sailors into the fold.

"Our Marine instructors are the ones these young men and women are
in front of, the first Marines the students come to know."

—CAPT Samuel P. Alford, USN

"Our Marine instructors are the ones these young men and women are in front of, the first Marines the students come to know," said Alford. "The tone is set right there."

According to the school's Web site, a typical day at Field Medical Service School begins at 4 a.m. with breakfast, a quick stretch and a six-mile forced march. The bulk of the day is spent in classes ranging from antipersonnel mine familiarization to field communications and is rounded off with exams, study time and lights out at 10 p.m.

"They didn't teach us much combat stuff in Navy boot camp," said Seaman Sean P. McHaugh, a Field Medical Service Technician Course student. "In boot camp we learned to tie knots and stuff, but it wasn't really anything practical. Out here we learn some combat stuff, and it makes you feel like you're really in the military.

"Don't get me wrong," he continued. "I love the Navy, but it's nice to get out there and do stuff like the rifle range and land navigation."

McHaugh also said that a few of his fellow students fail to see the point of such Marine-specific training, an assertion rebutted by Petty Officer Third Class Lonnie J. Lewis, who is currently serving his second tour of duty in Iraq as a green-side corpsman.

"I can personally assure you that without any of the training required of the Navy to go through this course, we would be very inadequately prepared for these types of field environments," he wrote from the First Marine Division's headquarters in Iraq. "The course prepares corpsmen to live [in] and understand the Marine setting. We learn everything from the basic breakdown of weapons we ourselves may have to fire from time to time, to the overall treatment of a mass casualty situation.

"Without the skills learned from FMSS, you would have a corpsman who is capable of saving a life in a hospital, but may not be able to function under fire. Given the type of environment in which we live alongside our brothers in the Corps, it is very important to understand and be able to perform the life-saving techniques learned from the instructors who have served with these Marines for years. Without the FMSS we would be lost."

According to Alford, the importance of preparing his sailors for their role of saving the lives of Marines in combat is an honor, a privilege and something his entire staff takes to heart.

"I stand up there on graduation morning and I think to myself, 'I'm one of the old guys. I'm not going to find myself pinned down behind a humvee with a wounded Marine,' " he said, his tone changing to denote he's given the subject a lot of thought. "But one or two, or 10 of them out there in that graduating class are going to be. And that's one of those real things that strikes you."

More than 30 years after earning his Purple Heart, Leonard was reunited with the corpsman who saved his life in Vietnam. With his wife Sheila on his arm, Leonard walked up to Trowbridge on his own two legs and thanked him for saving both his life and limb.

"My guess is that our Field Medical Service Schools still turn out the most magnificent field medics in the world -- Navy corpsmen," he said from his office as the national service director of the Military Order of the Purple Heart. "May the good Lord bless them all."

Author's note : There are two Field Medical Service Schools. For this article, Leatherneck was hosted by FMSS (East), Camp Johnson, MCB, Camp Lejeune, N.C. FMSS (West) is located at Camp Del Mar, MCB, Camp Pendleton, Calif. Both are Marine Corps formal schools.

Although each school's students are primarily hospital corpsmen, both schools also train dental technicians and officers of the Medical Corps, Dental Corps, Medical Service Corps and Nurse Corps. FMSS Camp Lejeune also trains religious program specialists and chaplains.

Editor's note : Leatherneck appreciates the support of the commanders and staffs of both schools. Read more about FMSS Camp Pendleton.

© 2005 Leatherneck Magazine. All rights reserved.




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