Obama Got It Wrong On ‘Corpsmen’

Jerry Coffee
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Wednesday - February 24, 2010
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“A convenient place shall be set aside for sick or hurt men to be removed with their hammock and bedding when the ship’s surgeon shall advise the same to be necessary; and some of the crew shall be appointed to attend and serve them and to keep the place clean.”

So read the first U.S. Navy regulation of the Revolutionary War era concerning the establishment of shipboard medical facilities.

As might be expected, those members of the crew so “appointed” accrued a degree of expertise even at that level, and since their duties included the delivery from the ship’s galley a daily portion of “porridge” - called a loblolly - they were soon referred to as “loblolly boys.”

Gradually “keep the place clean” evolved into organizing and storing medical supplies, assisting the surgeon in minor medical procedures and, ultimately, performing the procedures themselves.

Over the years, with growing responsibility, “loblolly boy” morphed into official specialty rates: “Surgeon’s Steward” or “Surgeon’s Nurse” and then to “Bayman” (as in “Sick Bay”).

In 1916, the increasing carnage wrought by more modern weaponry called for a modernization of military healthcare, and the Hospital Corps (pronounced “core”) was founded. The Navy specialty rates of “Hospital Corpsman” and “Pharmacists Mate” were founded, and the traditional red cross insignia was replaced by the medical symbol of the winged caduceus (the snake entwined staff with wings).

During World War II, there were more than 132,000 hospital corpsmen on duty. In keeping with the traditional Navy-Marine team concept, many were assigned to Marine amphibious assault units. On countless bloody beaches of the Pacific, their performance of duty, bravery and dedication to their Marines to whom they felt a “life and death” responsibility became legendary.

Just after the war, the Navy enlisted rate of “corpsman” came into being, starting with Corpsman Recruit, Corpsman Apprentice, Corpsman 3rd, 2nd and 1st Class, and, most senior, Chief Corpsman.

In every conflict in which corpsmen have served (which would be all conflicts up through the present), their casualties have been disproportionately higher because of their greater exposure to danger, as they respond reflexively to the desperate call of “Corpsman, corpsman, up!” to administer first aid and comfort to their comrades. And no rate has disproportionately accrued more well-deserved Medals of Honor, Navy Crosses and Silver Star medals.

I have seen firsthand in my own Navy career the pride and professionalism of dozens of fine Navy corpsmen both ashore and aboard ship. No Navy-Marine rate (specialty) is more highly respected or appreciated than that of Navy corpsman.

And this is why I watched in such disbelief and anguish as our commander-in-chief, speaking publicly at the recent National Prayer Breakfast, as he honored Navy Corpsman Christopher Brossard aboard the hospital ship USNS Comfort off the coast of Haiti for his dedication in treating Haitian earthquake victims. Three times he referred to “Navy Corpse-man” Brossard.


The commander-in-chief of our military calling a corpsman he intends to compliment a “corpse-man!”

Do we have the Army Corpse of Engineers? How about Americorpse? The Peace Corpse? Is that our Marine Corpse fighting in Afghanistan?

OK, so maybe the teleprompter was the culprit and he couldn’t interrupt the flow - whatever! But he could at least offer an apology, i.e. “Before I start my prepared remarks today, I’d like to take a moment to apologize to all our terrific Navy corpsmen, military personnel, their families and others whom I might have offended by my mispronunciation of the word “corpsman” at the recent National Prayer Breakfast. Of course, I know better, but just got caught up in the flow of my thoughts of Corpsman Brossard and got a little careless. And I’m sorry! I would very much appreciate your forgiveness.”

Considering the long and particularly illustrious history of our Navy corps-men, is that so much to ask?

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