First Duty – 35 years ago today

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First Duty

It was 1979 and I was sitting in a cold, noisy cargo hold aboard a C-141. Around me were twenty other men, all new transfers to Diego Garcia or to Naval Mobile Construction Battalion 5, my new duty station. We had been airborne for almost 8 hours after leaving Bangkok and before that had flown 5 hours from Clark AFB in the Philippines. According to the garbled voice over the aircraft’s intercom we were on final approach and this particular slice of hell was almost over.

This was my first of many flights on the venerable ‘time tunnel’ as the big cargo planes were called by those unfortunate enough to be passengers. The windowless holds were poorly insulated and indifferently heated. The temperature inside hovered a bit above fifty degrees, better than the outside temperature of minus 30 but still bone chilling after a few hours.

Half an hour later, the cold would have been welcome. Diego Garcia is a tiny atoll in the middle of the Indian Ocean. Eight degrees south of the equator, it is the very epitome of a tropical island. We stepped out of the still cold plane into blazing sun and ninety-degree heat. The humidity was within a soaking 95% and there was no shade for a mile in any direction, the native palms having been clear cut for the construction of one of the longest runways in the world. After a long half hour we were finally picked up by a trio of trucks for the three-mile trip to the Naval Support Facility and my new home.

NMCB-5 was the deployed unit responsible for new construction on the island. They had finished the runway before I arrived and were now involved in several major construction projects. There was the fuel pier, the new barracks and the infrastructure and utilities project. I was joining them as the new battalion medical officer.

Four weeks earlier, I had finished my internship at Bethesda Naval Hospital. I wish I could say it had been a good year, but that would be a lie. I was bitter and disillusioned. My peers and I had been regarded as temporary labor by most of our senior colleagues at Bethesda. We all knew that we’d be leaving for at least a year with an operational unit after the internship year and that only a few of us would be back. The rest would serve out their obligated service time as GMO’s (General Medical Officers) and leave the Navy to train in civilian programs. There was little attempt to encourage us to return and the prevailing attitude seemed to be that the only difference between a surgical intern and a cow pie is that no one went out of their way to step on a cow pie. On top of that, my brief marriage of just eighteen months was over. My ex had emptied the joint bank account, diverted the household goods shipment to an apartment in Chicago and, rumor had it, had moved in with an old boyfriend. I was literally broke and everything I owned was in my seabag and a footlocker.

My intention was to serve my time, four years, and then get a job. I would save my pay and make enough money to buy a sailboat and sail around the world. It wasn’t a practical ambition, but I’d done the proper, conventional thing in order to get through college and medical school. Now, I was going to do what I wanted.

The trip to the battalion headquarters was short, but I was soaked with sweat by the time I reported to the C.O.’s office. The Captain didn’t seem to notice. He shook my hand and heartily welcomed me aboard. We made some small talk about the flight, and about Bethesda, where he had been a facilities engineer in the early sixties. He handed me off to his aid, a bored looking ensign who in turn handed me off to the Chief Petty Officer at the medical facility. Chief Harders was the first indication I had that this was real and I wasn’t in training any more.

“First,” he said. “We need to get you into a proper uniform.” I was in travel khakis and the uniform of the day was green fatigues. “We have a supply meeting with the S4 at 15:00. They’ve been shorting us on paper products and for the last two weeks, we haven’t had an officer to stand up that twit ensign over there and get us our full requisition. Then the Master at Arms has Petty Officer Race in the brig. He’s our only Public Health technician and if you don’t get him out, the reefer inspection won’t get done and you’ll have to shut down the galley until it’s certified.” He smiled at the stunned look on my face. “Don’t sweat the small stuff, Doc. I’ll run the clinic, you take care of the officer stuff. OK?”

Over the next two weeks, I got a crash course in running a battalion medical department. I had a budget of several thousand dollars to account for and responsibility for several hundred thousand dollars worth of equipment and supplies. I had a division of twelve corpsmen to lead, discipline, and supposedly mentor and counsel on everything from medical procedures to financial responsibility.

I quickly realized that the C.O. didn’t want excuses. He didn’t care that I had never done this before. If I didn’t know the answer to a question, the only acceptable answer was “I’ll find out, sir”.

I met the rest of the officers and was put in a berthing hut with three of them, all Lieutenants, like me, and all company commanders in charge of several squads of men. I found out quickly that they were all really smart guys. They had good engineering educations and had been in the Navy for five or six years. They knew their jobs and did them exceptionally well. Excellence wasn’t just a goal to them, it was a standard.

And they treated me as an equal. I was a division officer, technically senior to them in the chain of command even though I was clueless.

About a month after reporting in and just as I thought I was getting a handle on my job, the embassy crisis in Iran geared up. This was just after the Shah had been ousted and a bunch of fundamentalists took over our embassy in Tehran.

The C.O. called an all officers meeting after getting a flash message from CentCom. We were put on Defcon 3 and orders were given to prepare the battalion for mount out. Which meant someone thought we might go to war. After an hour or so of readiness reports from the various line companies, the C.O. turned to me and said, “Doc, what’s our readiness plan for casualty clearing and evacuation.” Fortunately I knew the answer (the Chief had spoon fed it to me just before the meeting. God bless Chief Petty Officers). That’s when I stopped playing officer and really felt that I had become one.

My attitude changed after that meeting. I was determined to do the job to the utmost of my ability, just like the other officers around me were. And I was determined to go back to Bethesda and complete my surgical training. If I was going to be a combat medic, then I needed the best surgical training I could get.

In the end, Command decided not to send us into the Iranian desert to build an airstrip for a rescue mission. The logistics were too daunting and the combat power too uncertain. They did load the battalion onto an LST and float us around the Horn of Africa for two weeks before standing us down.

Although we didn’t see combat in the end, for those two weeks, the prospect was very real and I came away with a new outlook on my job and on life in general. I was serving something greater than myself. People had counted on me to lead them in a situation that might involve life or death decisions. It was heady and humbling at the same time, and the knowledge that I could do it changed the way I looked at problems forever.

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