CAMP AL ASAD, Iraq -- Retired Marine Maj. Gene Duncan once defined Navy hospital corpsmen as, “Usually a young, long haired, bearded, Marine-hatin' Sailor with certain medical skills, who will go through the very gates of Hell to get to a wounded Marine.”
Though “long haired” is open to subjective interpretation, beards have officially gone the way of bell-bottomed dungarees in the Navy and levels of disdain for their brothers in green vary from Sailor to Sailor, most Marines and corpsmen find a level of truth in Duncan’s definition.
Take, for example, Petty Officer 3rd Class William Ojeda, a Miami native and the platoon hospital corpsman for Regimental Combat Team-2’s Jump Team. Young? Check. Ojeda shipped off to Navy boot camp at 16, having skipped a grade in elementary school. At only 21, he has racked up five years of service and three combat tours, two to Afghanistan and one to Iraq.
Long-haired and bearded? Well, as stated, the long hair is up for debate. However, no first sergeant would pass up the opportunity to take a pair of clippers to his head. As for the facial hair, Ojeda barely looks old enough to vote, let alone grow a beard.
Hating Leathernecks, especially those under his charge? That is unthinkable, considering how he used his medical skills when he walked through Hell to rescue fallen Marines.
On Nov. 9, Ojeda was sitting in the trail vehicle in an uneventful convoy when a roadside bomb ruptured the vehicle to their direct front. The deafening boom and rain of debris from the explosion caught them off guard.
“Everyone (in my vehicle) just kind of froze for an instant when it happened,” said Ojeda, a 2000 Miami Beach Senior High graduate. “But we responded within seconds.”
The explosion had a devastating effect on the up-armored vehicle.
“The front half of the vehicle was gone, the only thing left was the two back doors and the trunk, and it was burning,” he said.
The two passengers in the back emerged shaken and covered in diesel fuel, but with relatively minor blast injuries. The danger from the improvised explosive device, however, was far from passed.
“When I walked up to the vehicle, there was still an unexploded 155mm shell poking up out of the dirt. I guess (the insurgents) didn’t wire that one right,” Ojeda said.
Unexploded ordnance is an enormous threat. While faulty wiring prevented the shell from detonating in this instance, the age and unstable condition of the ammunition available to insurgents meant it could explode in Ojeda’s face any minute. Despite having a virtual time bomb only a meter or so from his position, the corpsman continued to orchestrate the triage and evacuation procedures to get the wounded on a medical evacuation flight.
First in line for Ojeda’s triage was the driver of the Humvee.
“I look down at him, he’s laying on the deck, and his legs are gone. I grab him by the handle on the back of his flak jacket and start to drag him,” recalled Ojeda.
The main and most serious consideration for this act is concern for the unexploded ordnance. No amount of lifesaving measures would have mattered much if they all suffered a secondary blast.
The drag to the opposite side of the remains of the vehicle was an effort. Ojeda stands about 5 feet, 7 inches, 150 pounds, he said, and “(the wounded Marine) is a big guy, over six feet, maybe 230 pounds. I got him about 10 feet then had to say, ‘Good enough.’”
While Ojeda applied tourniquets to the traumatic amputations and administered morphine, the gunner in the vehicle in front of the destroyed Humvee doused the flames in the charred husk of the destroyed vehicle. Another Marine, Cpl. Robert B. Schlafly, a Nashville, Tenn., native and gunner with the Jump Command Team, put his combat lifesaver skills to use, assessing and stabilizing to the best of his abilities the other two casualties.
The Marine in the turret got ejected from the vehicle while the other, sitting in the passenger seat, sustained broken cheekbones, two punctured lungs and multiple shrapnel wounds, according to an account of the events.
“Once I’d triaged all of them, I went back to (the driver) and just talked to him, reassured him everything was all right,” he recalled.
It was about this time that a second fire started burning in the vehicle. Ojeda looked to his left and saw what looked to be a brand-new fire extinguisher from the overturned Humvee lying in the dirt. He picked it up and began to fight the blaze that threatened the ammunition in the still-intact trunk.
“You know, with all the (injuries), I was pretty calm. But I really started freaking out about extinguishing that fire,” said Ojeda.
With the blaze doused, Ojeda resumed calling out orders, establishing a casualty collection point and communicating what he needed in the nine-line brief used for medical evacuation missions.
“It all happened so quickly. It was probably five minutes at the most,” Ojeda said.
The evacuation helicopters arrived quickly, about 10 minutes between the nine-line transmission and having their skids on the deck, said Ojeda. When they touched down, the pilot told Ojeda where he needed which patients. Though the two passengers in the back suffered relatively minor injuries, they would still need to be evacuated.
“The pilot comes out and goes, ‘I need two over here and three over there,’” Ojeda recalled. “The (litter-bearers) had already consolidated so I just told them which helo to head to.”
Schlafly reflected on his “doc’s” actions.
“Anybody who can keep their composure when they’re putting a tourniquet on their buddy’s legs … I don’t even know a word for it,” he said. “I guess I didn’t really expect corpsmen to be up there dragging Marines basically through a minefield.”
Attempting to put Ojeda’s actions in a historical context, Schlafly said, “I think its right up there with stories you hear about corpsmen in World War II and Vietnam, dragging guys out and saving their Marines under fire.”
Despite taking charge of a mass casualty evacuation and saving the lives of two Marines under his charge, Ojeda is at once extremely humble about his activities that day and fierce in asserting that he was just doing what corpsmen do.
“In Field Medical Service School and Hospital Corps School they instill this stuff into you. Plus, I’ve done mass casualty evacuations before,” Ojeda said, referring to his other tours to Afghanistan and Iraq.
When asked what it’s like being exposed to follow-on attacks while stabilizing seriously wounded Marines, Ojeda said, “I’d die saving one of these guys. I’ll be damned if I die sitting in my seat.”