Through the Gates of Hell
Daniel Lowderman, United States Navy
It takes a special brand of crazy to do some of the jobs in today’s military . . . most notably, running towards the sound of gunfire as opposed to giving in to the normal human nature of self-preservation. Due to the unnatural aspect of being a United States Navy Corpsman, there are many who wonder why or how a person could do such a thing. Before I joined the Navy in 2006, I had no answer. I soon learned the lengths a person will go and reasons one would throw away their own self-preservation.
Hospital Corpsmen (HM), for those who are unfamiliar, are the medical personnel to the Navy and the Marine Corps. Corpsmen do everything from minor clinical medical jobs to major surgeries, depending on their specialty. For those Corpsmen who serve with the Fleet Marine Force (FMF) community, there is a universal mantra of sorts that all FMF HM’s have, and that is, “Through the gates of hell for a wounded Marine.” Back in 2006, I thought this to just be a cool saying; it had no meaning to me at the time. This of course would change.
No sooner did I finish my basic schools, then I was off on my first combat deployment to Fallujah with my infantry unit. Deploying as a platoon Corpsman only two weeks from graduating, I initially had a steep learning curve to overcome. My “baptism by fire” began when I received my first combat casualty two weeks into the deployment. It is an adrenaline rush like no other the first time “Doc” (Doc being a term of endearment from Marines to their Corpsmen) is yelled. Being depended on as “Doc” has the weight of twelve or more Marines lives on it. Having this responsibility is the first part that changes one’s idea of self-preservation. Life starts to be about those around you. Thankfully my first casualty was an easy one—a Marine who was shot in the shoulder by an enemy sniper. I soon learned that things could and would be much more intense.
My true test of grit and worth came later during that first deployment in Fallujah. On an ordinary patrol, the squad I was on patrol with came across a suicide bicycle bomb. My squad turned into an alley, then there was a large explosion from around the corner. Two Marines and I had yet to turn into the alley and thus were uninjured by an enemy that strapped explosives to his bicycle and rode it into the middle of the patrol. The ground shook with such force a person would think that there was an earthquake. As I turned the corner, I now had multiple Marine casualties to tend to alone. As I started to move and treat the wounded, the other two uninjured Marines started radioing for help and providing what little security they could for me. After I moved another and another casualty to my casualty collection point, I began to feel exhausted. An average Marine weighs around 175 lbs then has about another 100 lbs of gear on him. Fatigue was setting in. Muscles strained. Then something happened to make me forget about my problems. Just as soon as I moved to the next casualty, the roar of gunfire opened up towards us. I forgot my fatigue and muscle strain, and gained the energy and strength—much like a mother lifting a car to save her child—to run to move the rest of the casualties to safety. After a couple of hours, which felt like years, the medical evacuation convoy finally showed up. We loaded up the wounded then got on the convoy ourselves. At the end of it all, all of the casualties survived, I survived, and it became just another day. At no time did the thought of self-preservation cross my mind. The only thing I thought of was that my Marines needed me.
Fast forward to 2010 and my third deployment with the infantry Marines of my unit. This time was to Marjah, Afghanistan. Being in firefights was a common place for us in Marjah, almost as if it was a normal part of the day, like lunch or dinner. Within hours of arriving in the city, my Marines had already engaged in three fire fights. This tempo of combat only increased while we were there. It became so common that the initial excitement of being shot at and shooting back started to fade. The normal thrill that comes with being engaged by the enemy was replaced with a feeling of boredom, like a young child that eventually becomes uninterested in a once-loved toy.
This day would be different, though. This day the fight became much more. As we crossed the next field ahead of us, a peculiar feeling came over us . . . the eerie feeling that comes from realizing that all of the children who normally play in the streets and fields are not around, the farmers are not in the fields, and the livestock are not in their usual places. This strange silence was suddenly broken by the familiar sound of gunfire that exploded through the dead air from the left of us. Amidst the usual chaos we had grown accustomed to, we looked around for a position to take cover. Across from us about a half a football field away lay the only building in the entire empty field. This day that house was our Alamo. This is where we were going to make our stand. As we egressed to the lone building—pausing only for a brief few seconds to return fire—we could hear the crack of the rounds zooming past. Once at the abandoned house, the three Marines and I quickly took to our roles like a well-oiled machine. The squad leader got on the radio communicating to the other fire teams around us the situation that we had found ourselves in. The junior rifleman guarded the only door into the small mud house. Then the machine gunner took to the roof, the high ground, the position of superior fire power. The house was a simple square house made of mud. The roof was flat, no walls or protection. There was just a simple set of mud stairs that led to a square hole to the roof.
Amongst the sound of enemy fire around us we could finally hear the sound of the machine gunner’s weapon, the sound of an old friend there to protect us. As soon as the machine gunner started to open fire, we heard another familiar sound, not that of an old friend, but a sound that can instantly twist your stomach. It was the “crack” of an enemy AK-47, the kind of “crack” from the enemy gunfire that isn’t close, but that had met its target. No sooner did we hear the shot, than the machine gunner fell down the mud stairs and lay there in a daze, not yet understanding the full gravity of what had happened to him. A pool of red started to manifest around his neck and shoulders. As he lay there angrier that he was actually shot than worried about being hurt, I started to do my work patching him up. He was fine, but in no shape to continue the firefight. Once the squad leader saw that I was done patching up the machine gunner, he looked at me and told me, “Get on the roof.” I was not a Marine. I was a Navy Corpsman. I was there to give immediate battlefield aid to wounded Marines to increase the survivability of those hurt in combat. I was issued a weapon to defend myself and a Marine uniform so as to blend in and not stick out, but technically I was a non-combatant.
I asked the squad leader, “What?” And through the sound of our radios yelling at us, the enemy rounds still falling like rain around us, I heard the calm and determined voice of the squad leader say again, “Get on the roof.” Though the Marine was the squad leader, I outranked him not only in rank, but in job title as well. I was the senior medical asset to the entire company. The only people that I had to report to directly were the company commander and the company 1st Sergeant. Who was this Marine to give me orders? In addition to being junior to me in rank and job title, he was also junior in combat experience. This was my third deployment to combat and only his first. I stood there looking at the small square opening to the roof watching the dust fall like a fine snow from enemy rounds firing past. The rest of my Marines were doing their jobs to help interdict the enemy. The squad leader was on the radio coordinating the enemy location with the other fire teams. The junior rifleman was guarding the single entrance to the building. I had accomplished my job of giving medical aid to the wounded. But the day was not about me; it was about the men to my left and to my right. I grabbed the machine gun, which seemed to have the weight of a thousand pounds. It wasn’t only the physical weight of the machine gun, though. It was the magnitude of the situation of my Marines depending on me to give adequate fire towards the enemy. I took the machine gun and headed towards the opening. My Marines, too, expected me to shoot; I had to shoot to keep us alive. The sun shone down through the hole, leading me to the enemy gunfire above. I opened fire. Time seemed to slow down as I pulled the trigger. On the roof, the dust was so dense that every drop of sweat instantly turned to mud. With every breath, that same dust mingled with my saliva, making my mouth thick with that same mud. Through the rounds of enemy fire trying to find me, I pulled the trigger. The machine gun went to work, as I fired with surgical precision. The smell of gunpowder was all around, as if it the only thing around. Finally, the sound of enemy fire was replaced by the wonderful sound of Marine gunfire.
My use of the M240 Golf 7.62 machine gun that day suppressed the enemy, forcing them to take cover and allowing the other fire teams to close with, locate, and destroy them without worry of being shot at. Once back at the company forward outpost base, the impact of what had happened hit me. It wasn’t my job to get on the roof, but it was something that I had to do not only to complete the mission, but to ensure the safety of my Marines. I realized much later that this aspect of that day could be applied to all parts of my life. There may be times when my life, job, or school is suppressing me or keeping me down, but now all I need to do is look at myself in the mirror and tell myself, “Get on the roof.”
After my time with my Infantry Marines, it was time for me to take a non-deployable job. I was lucky enough to be hand selected to be an instructor at Field Medical Training Battalion (FMTB). Just under five years had passed, and I was back at the same school where I started and had been trying to understand the idea of true sacrifice. My students, much like me when I was in their shoes, did not understand the true gravity of their job to come. Pulling on my experience over the previous years and three deployments I told all my students the same thing:
“Some of you are here today from many backgrounds. Whether you are here because this has been your life-long goal or simply this is your last option, you are here now. The reason you are here is to save lives. When you leave this school, no one is going to care what score you received on your 5th or 6th exam or that you were the most physically fit while here as a student. When you leave this school, the only thing that matters is that you can save lives. Some of you that are more seasoned feel that the Navy hasn’t made you successful or that you are owed something. That is the wrong attitude to have. Your success isn’t measured by what the Navy has or hasn’t done for you. It isn’t measured by the test scores at this school. Your success isn’t even measured by the medals on your chest. Your success as a Navy Corpsman is measured by how many fathers you bring back to their children. How many husbands you bring back to their wives. How many sons you bring back to their parents. That is how you measure you success as a United States Navy Corpsman. To go through the very ‘Gates of hell’ to save a wounded Marine. I don’t care what it is that gives you your high. Whether it be shopping, drinking, or whatever your vice is. There is no better feeling in the world than when you get off the bus to your homecoming, and the first person to greet you isn’t your parents or your wife. The first person to greet you when you step foot back home is the Marine who left his hospital care and snuck away to be the first person to shake your hand and say, ‘Doc, thank you for saving my life’. That is the best feeling in the world. And that is why you are here.”
Is it a sense of duty and service that drives someone to let go of his self-preservation? Is it the lifelong bond that someone makes with his fellow war fighters, his “Band of Brothers?” I like to think that it comes from the “Get on the roof” moments and the pure joy of saving another’s life. In those moments the idea of self-preservation is simply washed away. Marines depend on their “Doc,” and once a Corpsman has gone through “The Gates of Hell” and returned successful, the trip just gets easier.
Daniel Lowderman served in the United States Navy from 2006 to 2011. As a Hospital Corpsman (Fleet Marine Force Warfare Specialist) 2ND Class Petty Officer, he served and trained with the Marines and Sailors of 2ND Marine Division. After multiple deployments with an Infantry Battalion as a Company level Corpsman, he then served as a Medical and Military Instructor at Field Medical Training Battalion where he received his Master Training Specialist certification.