Today on Grey Wolf’s Blog we welcome Ian Douglas, author of the Star Corpsman series of science fiction books.
by Ian Douglas
The U.S. Navy Hospital Corps–the “docs” who assist doctors and nurses in Navy hospitals, who run the sick bays on board Navy ships, and who train and deploy with the U.S. Marines and serve as their combat medics–has been around for quite a while. The congressional bill establishing the U.S. Navy Hospital Corps was formally signed into law by President William McKinley on 17 June, 1898.
Before that, however, they were the surgeon’s stewards, the baymen and the apothecaries who served on Navy ships during and after the Civil War, and before that they were loblolly boys–a term borrowed from the Royal British Navy during the American Revolution. Drawn randomly from the ship’s company, they prepared the buckets of sand in the operating room to keep the surgeons from slipping in the blood, and heated the irons used to cauterize amputations and severe lacerations. Loblolly referred to the ration of porridge they brought around each day to the sick and wounded.
From 1916 through 1947, petty officers in the Hospital Corps were called pharmacist’s mates, in keeping with the same rate structure that gave the Navy its gunner’s mates, boatswain’s mates, machinist’s mates, and others. After 1947, the Hospital Corps adopted the terminology used today: hospital corpsmen.
Corpsmen have a long and distinguished record of service in every war the United States has fought. Time and time again, corpsmen serving with Marine companies and platoons have put themselves in harm’s way at the call of “corpsman front!” Unarmed and under heavy fire, they’ve reached fallen Marines, rendered emergency field first aid, and kept them alive until they could be evacuated; sometimes, they’ve picked up dropped weapons to protect their patients at point-blank range, or covered them with their own bodies when a grenade landed close by. There’s no way even to guess how many lives they’ve saved.
But in the process, twenty-two corpsmen have won the Medal of Honor for gallantry in action, while 174 were awarded the Navy Cross, 948 the Silver Star, and 1,582 the Bronze Star, making Hospital Corpsman the single most decorated rating in the Navy, and with damned good reason. Since the Civil War, over 2,000 Corpsmen have died in combat. They’ve gone everywhere the Marines have gone. One of the six men photographed raising the U.S. flag on Mt. Suribachi was Pharmacist’s Mate 2nd Class John Bradley, serving with the 2nd Battalion, 28th Marines, 5th Marine Regiment during the bloody assault on Iwo Jima.
They also serve both the Navy and the Marines as technical specialists. After going through Corps School training, where they learn first aid, basic nursing skills, and patient care, some go on to more advanced “C” schools, becoming lab technicians, x-ray techs, operating room technicians, cardiopulmonary techs, or other medical specialists. Some go through FMF training–that’s the Fleet Marine Force–and it is they who serve in the field with the Marines as combat medics. A few become independent duty corpsmen, meaning they serve on ships or at duty stations with no doctors or senior medical staff. During World War II, no fewer than three independent-duty corpsmen performed emergency appendectomies while serving on board U.S. submarines, far from any possibility of medical evacuation and with no doctor available.
I joined the U.S. Navy in 1969. My dad had been a Corpsman during the Korean War two decades earlier, and I proudly followed in his footsteps. He’d been an OR tech and FMF; I chose to train as a lab tech instead. Most of my hitch was split between the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, and Roosevelt Roads, Puerto Rico, and I would not trade the experience for the world. While I was not FMF, I did work a lot with the Marines; corpsmen and Marines share a close-knit bond of history, camaraderie and mutual respect forged in blood from Belleau Wood to Iwo Jima to Fallujah. To my Marine friends, I will always be “Doc,” while for me, my respect for the Marines and what they’ve gone through is summed up in their immortal motto: Semper fi. “Always faithful.”
So what does all of this have to do with Ian Douglas and my stories about the Marines of the future?
It was inevitable, I suppose, that when given the chance I would write about the Marines of the future. It’s a venerable and honorable trope: E.E. Smith’s immortal Lensman series frequently brought in Sergeant van Buskirk and his Valerian space marines… and though they were called “Mobile Infantry,” Heinlein’s Starship Troopers, in their training, their culture, and their esprit, were clearly a future iteration of the U.S. Marine Corps. During the fight for Iwo Jima, Secretary of the Navy James Forrestal had just stepped onto the beach below when the flag went up atop Suribachi. “The raising of that flag,” he told General Holland Smith, “means a Marine Corps for the next five hundred years.” My first three Ian Douglas trilogies–Heritage, Legacy, and Inheritance–followed the future history of the Corps from a war on Mars in 2040 through to a climactic struggle with black-hole aliens at the Galactic Core in 4004… so I actually managed to carry things out a bit beyond the five century mark.
And of course, where the Marines went, even in the future, the Navy Hospital Corps went as well.
It occurred to me at one point, though, that Navy corpsmen might be good for something more in a high-tech future than patching up wounded Marines. Corpsmen are technically trained; not only can they dress a wound or splint a fracture, but some of them operate x-ray machines and sequential multiple analyzers and–nowadays, though they didn’t have them when I was in–MRIs. If the Marines are going to be deployed to alien planets–that “every shore and clime” of the Marine Corps Hymn–they may be too busy fighting off alien beasties to do the necessary technical work: analyzing the local atmosphere and biology and ecology and culture. Know your enemy was one of the foundational principles of warfare laid down by Sun Tzu 2600 years ago, and if your enemy is a life form that doesn’t look like you, doesn’t act like you, doesn’t even think like you, maybe it would be a good idea to have someone along with your Marine unit who can figure out just what makes the bad guys tick.
And the other part of Sun Tzu’s injunction is just as important: Know yourself. The Navy corpsmen of my various futures are responsible for the psychological well-being of their Marines as well as the purely physical. These books, after all, are more about what it means to be human than they are war stories about alien bug-eyed monsters.
And so, in a blinding inspirational flash, a nova against the velvet-black backdrop of space, the Ian Douglas military-SF series Star Corpsman was born.
Star Corpsman is the first-person narrative of HM2 Elliot Carlyle, attached to Second Platoon, Bravo Company, 1st Battalion of Deep Recon 7, 1st Marine Division. He serves onboard a Marine interstellar transport, the George Clymer, holding sick call and helping run the ship’s sick bay… and when the Marines deploy to the surface of an alien planet, he’s there to test the atmosphere and study the local biology and, just maybe, figure out how to communicate with the locals on the theory that talking to them is usually more productive than killing them.
Did anything of my experience as a Navy corpsman sneak into my stories?
Well… of course it did. That’s what writing is all about after all–taking your own life experience and presenting it to total strangers for their amusement and entertainment. As it happens, the George Clymer was one of the troop transports my dad served on as an independent-duty corpsman. And my wife suffered a devastating stroke in Maine. And… and… and…
There’s an incident in Star Corpsman: Deep Abyss where a doctor goes off the deep end and puts the hero on report for failing to obey orders. Something very much like that–with somewhat more primitive medical equipment–actually happened in Puerto Rico… not to me, but to a good friend of mine in the lab who had the ER lab/x-ray watch one night. A sailor on board a ship in port had fallen twenty feet and landed on a steel deck squarely on his head. The doctor on duty that night ordered a skull series–meaning x-rays of the guy’s head to see if he’d fractured his skull. The skull series was clear, no fractures, but my friend suggested that he do a c-spine series as well–meaning x-ray the cervical vertebra in the upper back to see if the sailor had managed to break his neck. The doctor was furious that a mere enlisted man would try to second-guess him… and ordered him not to take the extra pictures. My friend chose to disobey those orders… and a damned good thing, too. C1, the top vertebrae right under the skull, was cracked; C2 was completely broken through; C3… well, they couldn’t even find C3, it was so badly fragmented. Comminuted is the medical term.
But the doctor, who had some ego issues, put my friend on report and he had to go up before the captain who ran the hospital. When the chief who ran the lab showed the skipper–also a doctor–the x-rays, though, my friend was off the hook. The doctor on watch that night? He was transferred somewhere else… fast. In fact, the last I heard, he was out of the Navy entirely and practicing pediatrics in California, God help them. I hope none of his civilian patients ever hit their heads.…
So that story ended up, in revised form, in one of the Corpsman books, as did a few others.
But the single most important connection between my personal experiences in the service and those of Elliot Carlyle has less to do with war stories than it does with the Navy and Marine cultures, with the people–with what it means to be in the military, to be a Marine, or to work with them. I have to be damned careful when writing these books because my respect for the Marine Corps comes perilously close to hero worship… and as a writer my job is to show them as human, warts, sucking chest wounds, malfunctioning cerebral implants, and all.
Star Corpsman also lets me indulge in one of my favorite-ever topics: future technology–especially future medical technology–and our relationship to it. I get to talk about Freitas respirocytes and medical nanotechnology, cerebral implants that increase human intelligence and allow direct control of our machines, imaging technologies that let us peer inside the body’s biochemical processes in real-time, and even the CAPTR technology–the acronym stands for Cerebral Access PolyTomographic Reconstruction, by the way–that lets us cheat death. Unfortunately, I didn’t get to work with any of this stuff when I was a corpsman… but I did manage to pick up enough biochemistry and anatomy and physiology along the way to be able to speculate about where medical technology is going.
And most important of all… what will that technology mean for Humankind over the next century or two? Enhanced mental capabilities? Telepathy? Immortality?
Will we even still be human?
Those are the Big Questions… and the reason I write science fiction. I enjoy military-SF battles and fleet actions and weird aliens as much as anybody, but the real reason I do it is my fascination with what it means to be human.
Unfortunately, one part of being human has to do with conflict. Humans have waged war since we shrieked and gibbered and flung shit at one another in the trees of East Africa. Someday, when we mature as a species, when our technology matures, perhaps as we merge with our technology, we might finally break those ancient curses of ignorance and territoriality and fear-hatred of the unknown. I pray so. I’ve seen way too many mangled and broken kids in military hospitals to feel otherwise.
But so long as there is war, tyranny, or threats to our freedom, the U.S. Marines will be there, here, in orbit, or on the worlds other stars. As the famous saying by Marine Captain Ned Dolan so perfectly puts it: “Freedom is never free, but the U.S. Marine Corps will pay most of your share.”
And where the Marines go, yes, Navy corpsmen will be there as well.
William H. Keith
a.k.a. Ian Douglas
Thank you to Ian Douglas, to Zea Moscone and to Harper Collins