CAMP BLUE DIAMOND, Iraq -- An Army Blackhawk helicopter sets gently down in the sand in the dark of night. Navy corpsmen shout over the screeching whirl of the whipping blades to prepare the battle wounded Marines for boarding. Shadowy figures carrying stretchers scurry across the field toward the plane and disappear into the fuselage. The remaining Marines on the ground brace themselves and shield their eyes as the rotor wash blasts sand in all directions. In less than an hour from the time they received their wounds, each Marine will be in safe hands at one of the coalition forces’ medical facilities.
Though they had absolutely no contact with the wounded as they sat behind computer consoles and on telephones, the Patient Evacuation Team here at the 2nd Marine Division combat operations center is responsible for the decisions that could mean the difference between life and death for the Marines on the ground.
No medical evacuation in the division’s area of operations takes place without their say. The four-man team has the experience and the network to ensure the safety of division personnel’s lives, according to Navy Lt. James Morris, a 32-year-old Kearny, Ariz. native who coordinates all medical evacuations in the Al Anbar Province of Iraq.
“In our general area, we can move a patient in 36 minutes from the time of the call to the helo (helicopter) pickup to drop off,” said Morris. “A.O. (area of operations) – wide it’s a little longer. But no matter what, our mission is to provide the quickest medical and surgical intervention.”
The team constantly keeps tabs on how many beds are available, what necessary life-saving machines there are and what type of medical personnel work at each of the facilities throughout the province. This kind of information saves time and lives as it prevents unnecessary trips to facilities that may already be filled with patients or ones with broken equipment.
Morris’ team is made up of seasoned corpsmen. Although corpsmen are not Emergency Medical Technician qualified like civilian first responders, they are the equivalent – and in many cases, superior, according to Morris. For instance, corpsmen are qualified to insert chest tubes to make airways, a job civilian registered nurses are not qualified for.
“Corpsmen are the most highly trained medical providers on the enlisted (non-commissioned officer) side,” said Morris. “They’re the front line in medical intervention,” he added. “And my guys are not new to this.”
Morris himself is an emergency room trauma nurse by trade with five years experience in the E.R. His chief, who is in charge of enlisted personnel, has 15 years experience and he’s always getting more.
“We’re here to be behind the scenes, but they actually do more than just that,” said Morris. “Our team has helped in three mass casualties on base, treating wounded Marines near the headquarters.”
Morris and his PET team would rather be out with the infantry units doing what they do best, but they realize they have an important job to do and their decisions are what save lives.
“They make life and death decisions everyday,” said Morris. “When we’re busy, someone’s having a bad day. If we’re not doing much, it’s good. But the highlight of this job is knowing we’re making a difference in someone’s life -- that’s all you can ask for.”