Being a medic in combat is something special and very valuable. Especially for the other warriors on the battlefield who feel safer when they know that there is someone who is there to treat them if needed. Being a medic in most advanced combat special operations unit in the world is not easy at all because they are sent where no one else has been before, in most dangerous environments on earth.
It was a year after Special Operations Combat Medic (SOCM) school before he needed to use his skills to save a life.
“We were driving back from a training trip when we saw a flipped truck on the highway,” said a Special Warfare Operator 2nd Class (SEAL) who wished to remain anonymous due to his deployment status. “There was a guy trapped in the vehicle and he was missing four fingers.”
That’s when SEAL medic sprang into action. He was able to stabilize the seriously injured man until help arrived and then later had the wherewithal to search for the man’s fingers. That’s the nature of a combat medic’s job – a skillful, calm reaction to a bloody, unpredictable emergency whenever is needed.
Each platoon of a SEAL team has two billets for the combat medic NEC. Boat detachments have one billet. Operators selected for the billets attend one of the military’s toughest schools — Special Operations Combat Medic course at the Army’s John F. Kennedy Special Warfare Center at Fort Bragg, N.C.
“I still remember being checked in that first day,” recalled Special Warfare Boat Operator 1st Class (SWCC) Michael Harm, a combat medic attached to Special Boat Team 12. “Master Chief Welt sat us down and said, ‘this course, with the knowledge you intake, is going to be like drinking out of a fire hydrant.’”
The Special Operations Combat Medic (SOCM) course is 27 weeks long and is taught to Army, Navy, Air Force and Marine special operations forces. Those Sailors who are selected to attend the school are usually volunteers or prior hospital corpsmen who have gone through SEAL or SWCC training.
Once they have been selected for the program, it’s game time and the stakes are high.
“While you’re there, that has to be what you eat, sleep, breathe,” says SB2 (SWCC) Brian Chandler, a new SOCM graduate attached to Special Boat Team 12. “The same way if you were to go through BUD/S or SWCC school. That has to be your priority.”
SO3 (SEAL) Roy Perkins, a SOCM who graduated from school July 31 agreed with Chandler. “The first block of training (which was medical fundamentals) I remember being especially challenging. You’re bombarded with material, and it felt like all I ever did was go to class and study,” Perkins said.
The course is taught by instructors from all branches of service who expect nothing but the best from their students. Not only are students required to absorb and regurgitate every piece of information they are taught, they are required to keep a rigorous physical training schedule before going to class all day. It’s also mandatory for them to study a minimum of three hours per night and on weekends — no exceptions. If they don’t, they’ll fail.
“In 27 weeks, they take a guy who knows absolutely nothing (about medicine) and they make him the best battlefield trauma medic in the world,” said Master Chief Special Warfare Operator (SEAL) Michael Brown, force medical senior enlisted advisor for NSW.
Brown said Special Operations Combat Medic (SOCM) students are on a learning track equivalent to what a third-year medical student in anatomy and physiology class would be taught. That includes everything from learning how to stitch a wound to delivering a baby, and they get plenty of hands-on training. Students are required to work, either in a clinic or hospital, under the watchful eyes of doctors. Although they may never actually deliver a baby, they have to get their feet wet by doing the duties of an emergency medical technician, nurse or medical assistant.
Perkins said some of the material taught in the course goes beyond clinical medicine and delves into battlefield dangers, basic drug calculations, sanitation, environmental, and chemical, biological and radiological hazards. He also noticed how instructors kept their material updated.
“It is noticeable that the school house is always changing and adapting to stay current with the material they teach.” Those who have the mental fortitude and passion for trauma medicine succeed and graduate from the course. “I think that’s the key,” agreed SOC (SEAL) Christopher Nie, a Special Operations Combat Medics assigned to Group 1 Training Detachment. Nie, NSW’s 2007 Special Operations Combat Medics of the Year, said: “If you want to better yourself, you have to want to do it (finish the course).” Becoming a Special Operations Combat Medics entails a huge amount of responsibility. “As a Special Operations Combat Medics, you possess the capability to help save someone’s life in times of need,” emphasized SB2 (SWCC) John Cowgar, the 2008 SOCM of the year.
There are also benefits. Completing the school gives the operator a new designator that allows him to stay in the SOF medical field. Plus, he earns more than half of the credits required for a medical degree. He would only have to take a test to become a licensed paramedic. Capt. Gary Gluck, the NSW force medical officer, said SOCMs aren’t the only ones who receive a return after investing their time in training. NSW gets the biggest benefit of all. “Our NSW operators have seen an enormous leap in survival from combat injuries as compared to previous eras,” Gluck said. Combat medics are the backbone of the community, he added. Once a Special Operations Combat Medics graduates, the training never stops. He is still expected to do routine departmental training with his respective team and he has to go back to SOCM skills and sustainment courses once every two years for mandatory refresher training.
If he’s an SB, he may go through another skills course within the community to further enhance his proficiency. “I created the (SB) sustainment program to further enhance and sharpen the skills of an SOCM, enabling them to better treat their teammates,” Cowgar explained. A program is a phenomenal tool that has tremendously helped NSW and SWCC desiring to become combat medics. “If you go to him (Cowgar) first, you have a much higher chance of success in the program,” said Brown. Mentorship between junior and senior SOCMs is vital to learning “real-world” lessons and maintaining proficiency. “The training they get is good but you can’t replace experience,” said SOCS (SEAL) Santos Trujillo, a former SOCM attached to Naval Special Warfare Command.
“It takes a few deployments for a guy to really get comfortable.” For example, Trujillo said medical evacuations in Afghanistan can take a little longer than most others because of its mountainous terrain. As a result, SOCMs need to utilize what they have learned from their past medical experience as well as their training, especially if internal bleeding is an issue. “When you’re new, you sort have the deer in the headlights effect with medics who have never had someone’s life in their hands in combat,” Trujillo said.
Much of a Special Operations Combat Medics mentorship and training not only comes from senior Special Operations Combat Medics but from hospital corpsmen attached to teams and boat detachments. Hospital corpsmen not only help with mentorship, they help run NSW’s SOCM program. Brown said NSW’s SOCM program would never be able to operate as effectively without support from the corpsman community. Special Operations Combat Medics have proven their worth on the battlefield. If you’re ready to answer the ‘wanted’ ad, talk to your chain of command today.