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Birdsboro, Pa., native Cmdr. Sean Barbabella, the recent division surgeon for 2nd Marine Division (Forward), shakes hands with Marines and sailors who attended his Legion of Merit presentation ceremony April 5. Barbabella received the Legion of Merit, one of the military’s highest awards, for his accomplishments during a yearlong deployment to Afghanistan. Barbabella was responsible for restructuring the patient tracking system in Helmand province, Afghanistan.

Photo by Cpl. Jeff Drew

Pennsylvania sailor awarded Legion of Merit for medical excellence

13 Apr 2012 | Cpl. Jeff Drew

“I’m the proudest dad on Earth, without a doubt,” said New Salem, Pa., native Vincent M. Barbabella Sr., a retired major and former Army Ranger who fought in Vietnam. “One of the proudest moments was when I pinned the rank of commander on him -- he finally outranked me -- but I said, ‘You have to remember, dad’s orders always outrank any military orders.’ We are all so proud of him.”

Birdsboro, Pa., native Navy Cmdr. Sean Barbabella stood at attention as Brig. Gen. Lewis A. Craparotta pinned the Legion of Merit, one of the military’s highest decorations, on his uniform. A reunion of gathered service members erupted in applause and congratulations for the newly awarded surgeon. Craparotta served as the commanding general of 2nd Marine Division (Forward), in which Barbabella was the division surgeon, during the unit’s recent yearlong deployment to Afghanistan.

Barbabella earned the rare presentation of the significant medal through his exceptional meritorious conduct and outstanding service as the division surgeon from August 2010 to March 2012.

His goal, while deployed, was to take care of the commanding general’s troops and establish the strongest point-of-injury care for Marines, airmen, soldiers, and sailors on the ground, giving them the best chance of survival. The faster care can be provided, the better the outcome. He also orchestrated a revamping of the patient tracking system to collect more accurate data on injuries in theater.

“Moving from point-of-injury, which was the primary focus, to then tracking patients, was important at the headquarters level because we could tell the commanding general at any given time where a patient was and what their care was,” said Barbabella. “Another larger scale thing we focused on was the tracking of mild traumatic brain injuries, which was a huge function. I took it in two different phases: the administrative chain, where we did the Blast Exposure Concussion Incident Report that tracked every Marine who was exposed in a blast. If they had a concussion, it was documented; if they didn’t, it was documented. Secondly, the medical chain made it mandatory for every blast exposure and concussion to be put in (a service member’s) electronic medical record so they have it down the road.”

After reassessing the need for more accurate patient tracking, Barbabella focused his energy on assisting and mentoring Afghan service members as well. His work with the Afghan National Army’s 215th Corps made considerable improvements to their medical capabilities.

“When we arrived, (Afghan medics) were staffed at 30 percent and not maintaining,” said the 1992 graduate of the University of Pittsburgh. “We took our medical training and cut it to bare bones to what someone would need to know to save a life in that combat environment. We taught them how to put a tourniquet on, how to put chest seals on, and how to start an (intravenous therapy) -- basic lifesaving combat skills. We worked with our regimental and battalion surgeons, and they started teaching the course. By the time we left, Afghans were teaching the course, and our guys were just mentoring and watching, and that was important because now they can sustain on their own.”

 Another one of Barbabella’s integral additions to the medicine field was helping to develop the Mobile Trauma Bay. This innovative care system offered near-immediate emergency-room level care to casualties in the field.

“It’s an emergency doctor, a critical care nurse and three corpsmen and is capable of resuscitating fully, similar to any emergency room in the (United States),” explained Barbabella. “We had all of the trauma equipment needed. If helicopters can’t get in because of weather or they couldn’t fly, we still had an emergency medicine, board-certified doctor there with a nurse and blood products on scene in an initial convoy that could take care of a patient immediately. Even if a helicopter is on its way, that doctor can be working on that patient in five minutes.”

 Barbabella’s accomplishments during his tenure in Afghanistan were substantial to improving the medical care for forward-deployed service members. As the ceremony drew to a close, Marines and sailors shook hands with the newly awarded Legion of Merit recipient.

“It’s a great honor, and you never really expect to earn an award like that,” reflected Barbabella, a 1996 graduate of the Kirksville College of Osteopathic Medicine in Missouri. “It’s a privilege for me as a medical doctor out there to take care of guys who sacrifice so much. There is a lot of supporting cast out there – among them, my wife, whose unwavering support allows me to do my job. It was an honor to be a part of that team and take care of these guys. The deployment was the highlight of my career, just like that award, and I’ll never forget that.”