Wednesday, September 11, 2019

Corpsman Chronicles XIX: Running with the Immortals

Patriot Day. I'm not sure I like the name. That's just me though, and I don't have a better suggestion. Love how most of the major media is talking about how "airplanes attacked the wtc" eighteen years ago. Those reporters and editorialists must be patriots, right? Sorry, just sayin'.


I was talking to a Vet Center counselor today, and he pried a couple of war stories out of me. I'm usually uncomfortable telling the gory ones in person, because those who haven't been there tend to make assumptions and then thank you for your service. Nothing wrong with that at all. It just makes me uncomfortable. I figured the Vet Center counselor was probably immune to this, given his job of listening to war stories. Well, he wasn't. But he's a good guy and we've become friends over the years so it was okay.

I told him the following story (which has been on my mind recently, which I'll explain shortly).

"Whew," he said, shaking his head, "that's just crazy! How old were you then?"

I counted on my fingers for a while, then gave it up and took a guess. "Twenty-two, I think."

He opined that it's pretty amazing that someone so young "could have the courage and presence of mind..."

"Yeah," I said, "only a youngster is dumb enough to do that shit."

He said it was a valorous action to take. I said it wasn't, it was just me doing the job I'd been hired for and was expected to do.

So which is it? You know where I come down.

I think it's kind of like Clarke's Third Law, which states that any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic. I suspect that a person has to have lived such an experience to understand why it's just doing a job and not something exceptional. Without direct experience, it probably does look like valor, in the same way that advanced technology might look like magic.

Don't get me wrong, I was pleased and proud to be recognized with a Navy Com, but I always felt the award was for sucking it up and driving on and doing a good job under adverse conditions. That's what the citation said anyway.


I had a dream a few weeks ago. I was in a hot, close machinery space on the boat. The place was noisy as hell and not well lit at all. 
Tight, loud, and poorly lighted.
I was trying to intubate a grievously injured and unconscious sailor while he was trying to bleed out. The sailor had been caught in some moving machinery and couldn't be easily extricated. Due to the way he was positioned -- face up and head down, body mostly at a 45 degree, head-down slant -- the blood from his facial wounds was flooding his mouth and nose, trying to block his airway. With every exhalation he blew a red and purple mist of fresh and clotted blood. In my dream the colors were vibrant and the smell of blood and oil and hot machinery was thick and cloying. It was just like being there.

The sailor was bleeding heavily from deep lacerations on his left arm and the left side of his neck. If I couldn't quickly get an airway, he would choke to death. If I couldn't get the airway there'd be no point in staunching the bleeding, but if I didn't staunch the bleeding he'd bleed to death. And lurking ominously in the background was the fact that the machinery he was trapped in was still energized. A safety switch had halted the mechanical motion, but I had no idea whether moving the sailor would jostle the switch and set the monster to moving again. If that happened, and if my head and arms were in there with the sailor -- as they had to be to treat him -- we'd both be ground to a pulp.

It's a dream I have from time to time. It's a dream of recollection, for the dream faithfully recreates the reality of a drama that played out nearly four decades ago. It's not a haunting dream. I think it's a couple of different things. A reaffirmation and a warning.


Thirty-seven years ago on the boat, I just happened to be in the right place at the right time. I was drawing new flight gear (mine had been "used up" in a helo ditching about six weeks previously) and I'd accompanied one of the squadron AK's (Aviation Storekeeper) deep into the bowels of the ship to fetch the gear from one of the ship's many scores of storerooms. Just down the passageway a sudden onset of panicked yelling announced what sounded like a shitstorm of a medical emergency.

I arrived in only moments, and laid eyes on the scene described above. I had no medical gear, but mounted on the bulkhead across the passageway was a sturdy and well stocked ship's first aid locker.

"Shut it down!," I yelled at the slick-sleeved partner of the fellow hung up in the monster. "De-energize!"

"I can't!," he responded, "I don't know how!"

"Is it gonna start up again?"

"I don't think so!"

Well, fuck. Okay.

"Listen. You need to call away a medical emergency to this compartment. Can you do that?"

Blank stare.

"Okay, listen to me. Grab your LPO or Chief or the first khaki you see and tell them we need to call away a medical emergency. Now go!"

He turned to dash away and nearly ran down a Chief coming to investigate the ruckus.

"Chief!, Medical Emergency! Call it away!"

Behind the Chief were a half-dozen blueshirts, coming to troubleshoot the stores dumbwaiter which had lurched to a halt when the injured sailor got caught in it. The Chief shouted instructions and sailors dashed into action.

In the thirty seconds since I arrived I'd made a good eyeball assessment of the injured man. He was breathing, but his airway was in peril, and he was bleeding like a stuck pig. My job was obviously to follow the ABC's -- airway, breathing, circulation. Secure the airway and stop the bleeding. I rifled the first aid locker for an endotracheal tube and battle dressings.

As I moved in to treat the sailor the Chief warned me of the danger. He looked back and forth between me and the wounded man. He was pale and sweaty and looked like he might pass out.

I didn't want to stick my head and shoulders into the monster until it was de-energized, but I was out of time and therefore out of options.

As it turned out, the injured man was in a perfect position for blind nasal intubation. And here's a secret discovery I made. Bloody snot is just as good as surgical lubricant when you're in a hurry.

I had his airway secured in nothing flat and moved on to the bleeding. The neck wound was superficial but the arm wound, at the inner, upper portion of bicep near the armpit, was nasty. It was pumping bright red arterial blood. I couldn't see well enough to identify the culprit, but my probing fingers found a partially severed brachial artery.

A tourniquet was indicated, but I couldn't find one in the first aid locker. It was there, I just couldn't find it. Fortunately I did find a hemostat and some compressed gauze. As I was about to stick my arms back into the monster someone finally pulled the plug. Whew! As carefully as I could I padded the artery with gauze and clamped it down with the hemostat. No more spurting. Thank God.

I went to work with battle dressings as the medical emergency call came over the 1MC, or ship-wide announcing system. As a guilty afterthought I secured the sailor's cervical spine with a hard C-collar. The MRT (medical response team) arrived and I stepped back and briefed the duty physician, who just happened to be the ship's surgeon. He quietly gave orders and the MRT snapped into action, starting an IV and breaking out other emergency gear and meds.

The sailor ended up with a skull fracture, several facial fractures, as well as a fractured clavicle and humerus. He also needed some vascular surgery to repair the brachial vein and artery that I'd roughly mishandled. He made a full recovery though and was back aboard for the next deployment.

I'm glad I just happened to be there that day. It was a freak accident that happened about as far away from medical as you can get on the ship. His injuries left him in a position where he was in immediate danger of expiring through both choking and blood loss. The treatment I provided was pretty simple and straightforward for anyone trained in emergency medicine. The critical thing was that the treatment needed to be done immediately, and not "when we figure out how to shut this thing off." With airway secured and the bleeder staunched, the young and vitally healthy sailor could and did easily wait for and survive a careful extrication and transport to main medical.

The JAG investigation following the accident was simply bizarre. I came in for some heat for treating the fellow before the machinery was de-energized and therefore putting myself and some ill-defined "others" at risk. It was the first time I'd ever been questioned under oath by navy lawyers, any my personal takaway was that the job of the navy legal system is to put as many enlisted sailors in prison as possible, period, dot. For several weeks it looked like the Division Chief and LPO as well as the slick-sleeve who was present in the compartment would be court-martialed. Saner heads prevailed, and at the end of the day a "lessons learned" report was issued, rather than a criminal indictment. Anyway, the legal part is all beer through the kidneys and has been for many years.

So why share this ancient sea story?

Well, it's actually this question about human beings who choose to run toward the fire, rather than away from it. Why do they do it? How can they do it?

I'd imagine that anyone who reads this post has seen Trial by Fire.

It's often said that fortune favors the bold. In many cases this turns out to be true. Decisive action taken immediately can often snap a disaster chain before misfortune can unleash a full-blown shitstorm of horror.

But not always. When that first thousand-pounder cooked off it instantly killed the Chief with his PPK extinguisher and most of two hose teams.

I remember watching this film in boot camp and wondering, in some fashion, how a person manages to develop the kind of courage it takes to charge into mortal peril.

I couldn't help but wonder if I had the right stuff to function in the face of real danger. I think everybody wonders that. I wondered if people who took serious and sometimes enormous risks were fearless. If not, how exactly did they overcome their fear and find a way to perform in the chaos of mortal peril? I had no idea. No one addressed the question in training. I worried from time to time that fear would make me falter or run away. I just hoped that if the time came I'd be able to gut it out or something.

Of course you can't know until you're actually in a real situation. I found out in my first (and thank God only) serious flight deck fire that while I had plenty of fear and absolutely zero courage or bravery, what I did have was plenty of training to fall back on and a very real sense of responsibility.

The training allowed me to know what to do and how to do it, so I had no real doubts about how to proceed. I also found that my sense of responsibility was a welcome and somehow calming taskmaster. At a very basic level, I was the one who picked the job and I wanted to be there. The navy trained me well. When it was showtime, my shipmates counted on me to do my part just as I counted on them to do theirs. That sense of responsibility was a powerful force. I don't know how it worked for others, and it's a moot point anyway. That's how it worked for me.

Which doesn't mean I was unaffected by the danger and carnage. Danger always terrified me. The grievous physical wounds of my shipmates always terrified me. The dead and dying always broke my heart. And there was always the job that needed doing.

As I mentioned, my occasional dreams about the dumbwaiter monster provide me with a sense of affirmation and also with a warning.

The affirmation is simply this. I never ran away. I always did the job, I never let risk drive the equation. If I judged I needed to take a risk to help a shipmate I took the risk. Somehow it always worked out for me. I don't think I was ever under the illusion that I was bulletproof, but I also know I had the immortal optimism of youth. I could not conceive of a world without me in it, therefore I probably wasn't really going to die. Funny how that works. I long ago lost count of the number of shipmates who surely believed the same thing but nevertheless got their shit scattered. I guess Kierkegaard had the right of it, "...that humans have the capacity to simultaneously believe in two contradictory things."

The warning, then, is this. Don't. Get. Cocky.

A month after returning from the dumbwaiter monster deployment, we had a mass casualty drill at Oceana. The scenario, dreamed up by a couple of navy nurses, was that a tornado had taken out the O Club, the golf course clubhouse, and the base daycare facility. My team deployed to the O Club, and I led the pack, charging through the front entrance. Where I stepped on a tangled heavy duty extension cord and was judged to have killed myself by electrocution. More than a bit humiliating, and I was seriously pissed at the nurses who had dreamed up the clever trap. I had to admit it was a good lesson though, and to this day I still scan for downed wires whenever it seems prudent. The only cure for hubris is humility. It's a damned good warning.

May we all bask in the warmth of Liberty this day, and whisper a prayer of thanks to those who can't be with us.


  1. Sometimes it IS as simple as "I have a job to do." And doing it. Just like you did. No muss, no fuss, just do it.

    1. And that's a fact. The world is a very simple place where the rubber meets the road.

  2. Good to see you up and about. I appreciate your posts as they make me think, look, learn or remember and enjoy. Take your time and get better. We will be here. Mark

  3. We are damn lucky to have men 9and now women) who can jump into action and do jobs like you did. Only Lady Luck's placing you in that space at that time enabled you to save a life. Sure, maybe someone else might have been there, or maybe the guy might have survived anyway, but we never know.
    You did not intend to "be a hero" but you damn sure were. You didn't go looking for stuff lie that to do, but everyone is grateful that some people know what to do (most don't). And these days, thanks to the lies of the JAGoffs some who know how to do stuff will not for fear of the tort extortionists.

    Your writing is superb, and we can all learn stuff-- the electrical hazard for example. Please keep writing!
    John Blackshoe

    1. Thanks John. Your kind words are humbling and appreciated.

  4. I, too, am a bit embarrassed when thanked for my service.
    Most of it was just routine and, just a little, boring, even though we always had more on our plates than there was time for.
    Usually, I just thank them in return.

    1. That seems a good way to go. I usually try to point out -- if it seems an appropriate time and conversation -- that we're all in this together and that jane and joe sixpack pay the bills which is no small thing. I also like to steal Mat Best's line, "thank YOU for my service."

      Thanks for stopping by and sharing!

  5. Great post Shaun, training is everything. Train hard enough and the reaction is automatic. It's only if you stop to think do things get weird.

    I think it was Suvorov who said "Train hard, fight easy."

    1. Thanks Sarge. The more you sweat in training the less you bleed in battle. I don't know who said that, other than a bunch of training instructors.

  6. Having had a tiny bit of the training that you had, I have always been glad that I have never been faced with the sort of emergency that you faced. That you knew what to do and did it speaks volumes about what kind of person you are.

    Thanks for the post.
    Paul L. Quandt

    1. Thanks Paul, that's very kind and humbling. Thanks for stopping by!

  7. Your electric cord lesson is one I learned in EVOC, ( Emergency Vehicle Operator's Course ). While in a simulated pursuit, when approaching a curve, I cut a corner on a curve, rather than "shooting the apex" of the curve, and was deemed to have died in a head on collision. It was pointed out that you don't help anyone, if you don't make it to the scene of the emergency.

    Training is so important, you need to train as you did, until you do what needs to be done, without thinking. Like you did.

    BZ, Shaun, BZ!

    1. Thanks Scott. If you kill yourself you not only don't help, you pile just that much more on your shipmates. They have enough on their plate and don't need anyone adding to the pile!

  8. Why do some people run TOWARDS the fire? For the same reason that many run AWAY. Some people are tall. Some are short.

    Someone mentioned training. Many of the things that are taught was payed for with someone’s blood. Often, that someone payed with their life as well. And those lessons learned (and correctly applied) have saved countless more.

    I don’t like that term “Patriot day” either... to me it implies you don’t have to be on the other 364 days...

    1. Good thoughts cT. Important lessons are often written in blood. Thanks for stopping by!