AL TAMAL, Iraq -- Seaman Bryan W. Stocks, a 20-year-old Kenai, Alaska, native and platoon hospital corpsman for 3rd Platoon, Company A, 1st Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, had a tough choice to make when he was considering enlisting into the Navy: nuclear physics or medicine.
One involves high mathematics and accounting for the behavior of atoms; the other, calculating medicinal dosages and accounting for the behavior of human beings. Two equally demanding and difficult jobs suitable for only the most trustworthy and intelligent of enlistees. Ultimately, though, the decision came down to a question of what Stocks could imagine doing for the rest of his life.
“When I first went to the recruiter’s office, I signed up for nuclear technology,” said Stocks, a career that meant spending significant amounts of time at sea in a submarine, keeping the nuclear-powered war vessels underway. “But that came with a six-year enlistment, and I never really liked calculus and trigonometry in high school anyway.”
Instead of backing out of the contract completely, he said, he took an offer from the Navy light years away from working in the bellies of some of the most powerful machines on the earth.
“I chose to be a (hospital corpsman) instead. I got a two-year active duty contract for volunteering to be a fleet corpsman,” he said. The agreement also calls for two years as an obligated reservist and four years in the Individual Ready Reserve.
The decision to spend his time in the Navy as a “doc” in the Fleet Marine Force led him here today, to Al Tamal, a small community of shepherds in the flat, expressionless desert of western Iraq. This dusty, windswept village seems to sprout out of nowhere, more than an hour away from the nearest city, which makes it a perfect place for insurgents and smugglers to use as a base of operations.
It is to disrupt these operations that brought Company A, 1st LAR here, and Stocks, a 2004 Kenai Central High School graduate, accompanies his Marines everywhere they go, medical bag and trauma shears strapped to him, ready to react to any injury.
The Marines of 1st LAR are broken down into two categories: scouts and crewmen. The crewmen operate the vehicle and its weapons systems, and the scouts do just what one might imagine from their name. They depart the vehicle to reconnoiter, assault and secure objectives.
“As a corpsman, I’m required to do everything a scout does, including clearing houses,” Stocks said standing behind one of the Light Armored Vehicles.
Today, closing with and securing an objective brought Stocks into a room crowded with Iraqi women and children, a family whose father was arrested for suspected insurgent activity. Stocks discovered, through a translator, that two of the children had been coughing a lot and one of them has a sore throat.
“Let me have a look here,” he said, kneeling. He reached into his medical bag and pulled out his stethoscope to listen to the breathing of an Iraqi girl. Seeing the nervousness in her face, Stocks put the earpieces from the device into her ears and tapped lightly on the drum to show her what it was and how it worked. Listening to the tapping, the girl turned her big brown eyes to Stocks and smiled tentatively.
“Breathe in,” he said, making a rising motion with his hand. “Ok, breathe out.”
Examination of the girl complete, Stocks repeated the process with the boy who was also complaining of a sore throat. After listening to his lungs and peering into his throat with a flashlight, Stocks said, “It sounds like they’ve got an upper respiratory infection, and this one has a nasty sore throat. It looks like he’s developing some sores back there.”
“Doc” Stocks encouraged the mother to keep the children indoors and have them drink plenty of fluids.
“Two kids with an upper respiratory infection and a sore throat. There’s just not a whole lot I could do for them,” said Stocks. “They just need some (decongestant), rest and plenty of water.”
Once the medical treatment was complete and the house secured, Stocks and his Marines moved back to their vehicles ready to move on to the next objective.
Almost unbelievably, in the next house the Marines entered, they were approached by a woman who said one of her family members had just given birth and was not feeling well.
“She had actually given birth about three days ago, but when I first walked in I thought the kid had (just been born),” he said, laughing. “When I examined the new mother, her blood pressure was very low since she had lost a lot of blood, so I started an IV on her to get her blood volume up.”
The family was grateful for the treatment.
“They brought out some bread, chai and yogurt,” recalled Stocks. “The yogurt kind of tasted like sour cream but I tried it anyway.”
The gratitude and hospitality didn’t stop there.
“They actually wanted to slaughter a lamb for us but we had to tell them we didn’t have time, that we had to go.”
Stocks said the opportunity to treat civilians who might have little or no access to trained medical assistance is invaluable. He plans to submit an application to the U.S. Naval Academy this year to pursue a career in medicine.
“I’m getting a lot of hands-on experience that a lot of guys won’t have going in to medical school,” he said.
His experiences have also been a confirmation of what he calls his “calling” to medicine.
“This is so emotionally gratifying. It really proves that I love what I do,” he said.