by Thomas L Snyder
I had my introduction to Independent Duty Corpsmen when I served as Squadron Medical Officer in Destroyer Squadron Fifteen. Each ship in the squadron was served by one IDC and an assistant. I was the only physician for the squadron of six ships which usually operated hundreds of miles from my position on the squadron flagship, so these men were the sole source of medical expertise for their crews. On one occasion, while the flagship was involved in an underway replenishment (during which, the ship, sailing a parallel course with a supply vessel while supplies–food, shells for the big guns, even fuel via hoses–were taken aboard) we took a 30 degree roll. This resulted in a man being swept overboard–he was promptly found and fished back aboard unhurt–and several men injured by shifting pallets of food and bullets. The IDC and his assistant went quickly and efficiently to work, expertly assessing, then caring for the injured. I needed only to stand back and watch, serving as a consultant when (not) needed.
Independent Duty Corpsmen are specially selected (for their intelligence, maturity and judgment) enlisted sailors, already experienced as medical technicians (corpsmen), who receive training to serve–often in the absence of a medical officer (doctor). When serving independently, they are designated the Medical Department Representative for their commands.
Non-officer medical technicians can be seen serving their fellow soldiers at least as early as the forepart of the current millennium, when soldiers specially trained at bandaging war wounds–the capsarii–received assignment to Roman army and navy units.(1) Some of the capsarii worked independently, being the first to provide care to soldiers injured in battle before being transferred back to legionary hospitals, where their care would be undertaken by military physicians, the medici.(2) With the collapse of the Roman Empire and subsequent loss of Roman practical knowledge, the educated medici were the first to disappear, then the wound dressers. Post Roman German armies used “wise women”–wives of soldiers and other untrained female camp followers to care for their wounded.(3) Early in the Crusades, there appear to have been no trained wound dressers, with soldiers and even knights learning and applying a sort of buddy care for wounds, while senior officers, the nobility, usually had their own private surgeons. It does appear that a more well-organized system of care for the wounded and sick evolved from the late twelfth century forward.(4) The Byzantines preserved and applied Roman medical skills and methods*, and the Arabs imported much of this knowledge. Other than for their service in Arab army mobile hospitals, where they served under direction of military surgeons, I can find no evidence for independently serving capsarii equivalents through the middle ages.
Most ships of the Elizabethan Royal Navy carried a surgeon and his surgeon’s mate. While the surgeon normally brought with him specific training in the surgical arts, the mate typically learned the work on the job. These men often received “field promotions”–a prerogative of the ship’s Captain–to replace a surgeon who died or jumped ship.(5) The surgeon’s mate was pretty much a fixture in the Royal Navy until the 19th century, when a specifically enlisted rating of Berth Attendant came into being.(6) In the American Navy, medical assistants were selected from the crew. Called loblolly boys, their job originally was to keep filled the sand buckets intended to supply antislip material to the bloody floor of the ship’s cockpit so that the surgeon laboring there wouldn’t slip and fall. The U S Navy Hospital Corps officially came into existence in 1898. During World War I, Navy Corpsmen served with distinction with Marine Corps forces in Europe. During World War II, these men, now joined, late in the war, by enlisted women–Corps WAVES–ministered to the needs of injured and sick sailors and marines. By 1944, schools to train corpsmen for independent shipboard duty and duty with the Marine Corps had sprung into existence, establishing for the first time, officially, the notion of duty independent and away from the immediate supervision of a medical officer.(7)
Today, specially trained corpsmen serve outside the direct supervision of physicians in ships, with Marines in the field, in submarines on several-month-long cruises and with special forces troops in “high risk environments”.
(1) Gabriel, Richard, and Karen S Metz, A History of Military Medicine, Vol 1, Westwood, Connecticut, Westwood Press, 1992, p. 167. Gabriel and Metz have been my “bible” as a general history of military medicine. The work is now nearly 20 years old and does seem a bit dated. Yet look as I may, I’ve yet to find a comprehensive replacement.
(2) Risse, Guenter B, Mending Bodies, Saving Souls–A History of Hospitals, New York, Oxford University Press, 1999, p. 52.
(3) Gabriel and Metz, op. cit., p186-7.
(4) Mitchell, Piers D, Medicine in the Crusades, Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 2004, p 68. Mitchell is, however, uncertain whether there was an organized system of field medical technicians or “if new soldiers just learnt the basics of wound care from their more experienced comrades.” He is inclined to believe the latter. p. 178.
(5) Keevil, J J, Medicine and the Navy: 1200-1900, Vol 1, London, E & S Livingstone, 1957, p141 (and others).
(6) Lloyd, Christopher and Jack L S Coulter, Medicine and the Navy: 1200-1900, Vol 4, London, E & S Livingstone, 1963, p61 ff.
(7) Naval Education and Training Professional Development and Technology Center, Hospital Corpsman NAVEDTRA 14295, Appendix I. This document is published in pdf format and is available for purchase as “14295pdf” from Integrated Publishing, Inc at http://www.tpub-products.com/archive/?../../subscribers/./Medical/Naval_Medical/main.htm, accessed 11 February 2011.
* The famed American military medical historian Fielding Garrison famously remarked that “Byzantium was…a kind of cold storage plant for the remains of Greek culture, or as Allbutt puts it: ‘The chief monuments of learning were stored in Byzantium until Western Europe was fit to take care of them.'” Garrison, Fielding H, Notes on the History of Military Medicine, Washington, Association of Military Surgeons, 1922, p 78.
©2011 by Thomas L Snyder