Why We Do What We Do—“Corpsman Up”

May 2011
By Capt. Joseph A. Grace Jr., USN (Ret.), SIGNAL Magazine

With our military stretched among three fronts, our volunteer force is bearing a tremendous burden of OPTEMPO, reduced budgets and political posturing. A recent experience I had with our disabled veterans highlighted the reasons why we do what we do. It may be a good reminder to us all.

A few weeks ago, I was fortunate enough to be invited at the last minute to attend the 25th National Disabled Veterans Winter Sports Clinic in Snowmass Village, Colorado. The clinic is sponsored by both the Department of Veterans Affairs (VA) and the Disabled American Veterans (DAV) along with members of industry. It is a rehabilitation program, and veterans suffering from particular conditions and receiving care at any VA health care facility are eligible.

The Winter Sports Clinic provides injured veterans and those who just recently have become injured or disabled with the opportunity to take part competitively in rehabilitative and adaptive sporting events. In a spectacular setting and a well-organized venue, it is a very simple reminder of the high price paid by our military veterans and our compelling need for continued commitment to serve these heroes. These events push the competitors to go beyond what they believed possible, given their injuries. Most participants discover they were not as limited as they believed they were before competing.

Not sure what this event required but very anxious to help our veterans, I left New Orleans, a city not known for its winter fashions or snow activities, fully equipped with a credit card and a 1980s retro ski jacket to help in any way possible. During the next week, I saw more than 300 veterans take to the slopes to pursue a whole host of challenges from skiing to rock climbing, scuba diving and snowmobile racing. All were bound by a powerful camaraderie that created a chance to heal deep wounds that can be healed only through accomplishment, achievement and challenge. They were joined by hundreds of volunteers and even U.S. Vice President Joseph Biden.

I had the privilege of participating as part of a sponsorship team in one of the social gatherings for the Marine Corps veterans and competitors. Many a rendition of the “Marines’ Hymn” was sung, many a toast was made to fallen comrades and there was a genuine feeling that exemplified the Semper Fi spirit of the Corps. But, during these emotional proceedings, an older and very disabled Marine fell hard, passing out and hitting the wall and the floor with a solid thump. Several of us immediately ran across the room to see what we could do. As several of us gathered around this fallen veteran, I heard the words called out in a loud commanding voice, “Marine down, corpsman up!”

Almost every day, the cry “corpsman up!” rings across a battlefield somewhere in Afghanistan or Iraq, the same as it has for all of battles of the Corps. It sends a crouching Navy corpsman with a medical bag dashing—often into enemy gunfire—to treat a wounded Marine. In this alpine setting though, there was no withering fire or enemy nearby.

Instead, we witnessed a highly disabled corpsman—“Doc,” as they are reverently called by their Marines—respond immediately. He was not able to move easily, as his hands were drawn up from his disability, his speech was slow, and his limbs were hampered. Yet, he unhesitatingly crawled across that room with the determination of a battlefield call and made every effort to get to “his Marine” who needed him—irrespective of any personal disability or struggle. He fought his way to the side of that old Marine and dropped down to provide the same comfort and aid that he had done so many times before. We silently moved aside to let this real professional take over, and the “Doc” who was now by his side, falling into training from long ago, answering that call of “corpsman up …” without hesitation or decision, was tending to “his Marine.”

Most of those who witnessed this event were moved to tears that could hardly be contained. We all were privileged to see an emotional bond and timeless tradition unfold before us, featuring real people with real disabilities with no regard for themselves and no other thought than to take care of their buddy. The love, the commitment, the dedication and the calling were beyond words, but we all heard them—“corpsman up,” and he came “running” with all that he had, as best he could and in whatever way he was able.

It is a privilege to be a veteran. It is an honor to have served with such great Americans. And, it was fantastic to see our industry partners working side by side, just as they do every day in the workplace, with our military and our disabled veterans, giving all they have just to be there to help them achieve and, as one veteran described in his interview, “get their lives back.”

The bond between a corpsman and his Marines is sacred; that tether between a medic and his squad is the same. Those who answer the call to arms are a unique and very special group of people whom we now call our veterans. Although somewhat different in their roles, those who support these veterans in industry, personally, with financial commitment, and with time, energy and passion also are heroes and make a difference every day for our troops. We all are answering that call of “corpsman up” in our own way. It’s why we do what we do. To all veterans, and to all who serve them, thank you!

Capt. Joseph A. Grace Jr., USN (Ret.), is the president and chief executive officer of Grace and Associates LLC and a former chief information officer for Navy Medicine. The views expressed are his own and not necessarily those of SIGNAL Magazine.

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