Shawn was a Hospital Corpsman and deployed aboard the USNS Comfort, a Naval medical ship, in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom. During that deployment he provided medical care for wounded US troops, Iraqi civilians and Iraqi Enemy Prisoners of War. After returning home from deployment he was stationed in Bethesda, Maryland before moving on to duty stations in Keflavik, Iceland and Twentynine Palms, California.
Please note that the interview contains depictions of wounded US military personnel and Iraqi civilians.
Interview conducted on May 31, 2015 over the phone
Present: Richard Hayden and Shawn PattisonBall
Transcribed by Richard Hayden
Note: due to a bad phone connection towards the beginning of the interview, there are a number of early interruptions. After reconnecting a few times, the interview continues without problems. All breaks are noted.
Richard Hayden: What is your full name?
Shawn PattisonBall: My full name is Shawn Michael PattisonBall.
RH: What branch of the military did you serve in and what years?
SP: United States Navy, 2002 to 2007.
RH: What was your rank when you got out?
RH: What was your rate?
SP: Hospital Corpsman.
RH: Where were you stationed?
SP: Bethesda, Maryland which is the National Naval Medical Center and I was attached to the USNS Comfort. I went from there to Camp Lejeune, North Carolina unfortunately. Then I went up to Iceland, Keflavik and then down to Twentynine Palms, California.
RH: What motivated you to join the military?
SP: Let’s see. My buddies, two of them signed up for the Navy and they asked me to join. I told them, “No,” but then my dad told me that the day I graduated high school he’s kicking me out of the house so then I was like, “Well, maybe I will do that.” I did that and then 9/11 happened and I think it was like, alright, there’s a real reason to do this now. So it was probably a combination of things that pushed me into it for sure.
RH: Why did you pick the branch of service that you did?
SP: It was definitely because my two friends had already signed up for the Navy and they had asked me to join. I was like, “I’ll just join with you guys.”
RH: Why did you pick Corpsman?
SP: The two friends who talked me into joining, they backed out right before I left for boot camp. Literally, two weeks before they both chicken-shitted out. We all signed up to be Seabees and for some reason I was like, “I want to change my rate now.” When I went and saw the recruiter, I was like, “They both backed out. I’m still going to go.” I quit my job and sold my truck so I literally had nothing and I was going to go but I was like, “I’m going to change my rate first. He was like, “Alright, here’s your options.” I chose Corpsman because it sounded cooler than most of the other ones.
RH: How did your family feel about your decision?
SP: They were proud of me. They thought it was cool. I didn’t hear anything negative. Naturally my mom cried. She was like, “Oh! My baby’s leaving home.” It was all positive.
RH: Where were you on September 11th?
[Phone connection becomes patchy]
SP: [word inaudible] I was in Washington [state] and there was a time zone difference. I was in bed. I remember my little brother came barging in my room and woke me up and was like, “Shawn! Dude, our country’s under attack!” I was like, “What?!” I thought he was crazy. He was like, “No. You don’t understand. People are flying planes into buildings.” At the time, the news was reporting more than what actually had happened. Gnarly as that was, they were saying car bombs were going off in front of the White House and shit like that which didn’t happen. He was listing off all these things that the news was reporting. We went in and I literally walked into my living room to see the moment the plane hit the second tower. I woke up and saw that and I couldn’t even understand it. It was like I was standing next to myself. I couldn’t believe seeing something like that.
RH: What are some of your specific memories of that day?
SP: Of 9/11?
SP: Just going to school. I went to school and all day that was just the talk. We all just stared at TVs all day and I think everyone was in shock. The teacher was like, “Alright. We need to stay focused.” No one could.
RH: Where did you go to boot camp?
SP: Great Lakes, Illinois.
RH: What was your follow up training like?
SP: It was a lot like school, a bit stricter. There was no leniency. Honestly, it felt a lot like any other school you go to. You go to class, you listen, you study. They didn’t have to take shit off of anyone. You had to be there. It was thorough, honestly. They really tried to give us as much knowledge as they cold in that amount of time.
RH: Do you feel like your training prepared you for what you had to face while you were in?
SP: Yes, I really think it did. It was broad but I think it gave me enough to where, with just my own thinking, I could fill in the gaps. It was like a safety net for what I was going into.
RH: Where in the US were you stationed when you deployed?
SP: Bethesda, Maryland, which is basically in Washington, DC.
RH: How did you eventually end up on the Comfort?
SP: We took planes out of DC. We flew into Italy and landed in Milan, Italy. We stayed there for eight hours in a guarded airport hangar by these cops in Italy and they just walked around with uzis. Literally, they just walked around with uzis – hands on them and everything – guarding us in this, not a hangar, just a part of the airport. They just sectioned it off, guarded with guys with uzis and we just sat there for eight hours, got on another plane and flew into Bahrain. From Bahrain, that’s where the ship was. It wasn’t technically docked. It had to be so many miles out because of the size of it. So we took a little ferry out to it and from the ferry we could board the Comfort.
RH: What was the date of this?
SP: God, it was like March 5 or 7.
RH: Of what year?
RH: When you finally got to the Comfort, where did you sail to?
SP: We sailed out right off the coast of Iraq. It literally was really close – a couple hundred yards. You could see it.
RH: What was the mission of the Comfort while you were deployed?
SP: To provide medical care to all casualties. Whether they be enemy prisoner of war or our own troops. We provided medical care.
[Due to some technical problems on the call, the next three questions were asked later in the interview. They should have been asked at this point. They have been inserted here for the purpose of continuity.]
RH: Can you describe the USNS Comfort a little bit?
SP: Yes. It was a giant hospital ship. It was a tanker, I believe an oil tanker, long before that. The thing about the USNS Comfort is that it’s not a USN ship, it’s not a United States Navy ship, it’s a United States Naval Ship. It’s different because there were civilians on board of it but the civilians only operated the ship. They didn’t deliver any of the medical care.
The Comfort’s only goal is to deliver medical care. It has top of the line medical equipment on it, all sorts of military doctors – naval doctors mostly but there were some Army. Dude, it was giant. It could hold a thousand patients at a time. That’s a lot of patients even though we never reached that capacity, one thousand at a time, we still had hundreds at a time. The thing is, if you fit a thousand patients in there at once, some of them would have had to have been on a top bunk. There were bunk beds and most of these people were injured. How the hell would you get them up in the top bunk? [laughs] That was always a bit ridiculous but the top bunks were there.
RH: Where was it home ported out of?
SP: Baltimore, Maryland.
RH: How many wards altogether were on the ship?
SP: God, it’s hard to remember now. I thought that there were seven front and seven aft. I think so. So I’m guessing fourteen but then there’s CASREC, a surgery ward. There’s an ICU ward there. That’s a whole other story. I actually worked in the ICU one day because they had a lot of bad burn victims come in. I mean, people burnt head to toe. All over. That was hard. That was really nasty to see and the constant changing of their bandages and dressing – it was something else. Oh man. It was disgusting looking, that’s for sure.
RH: What, specifically, was your job?
SP: My job was to take care of them mostly after surgery. They came in but, honestly, some of them didn’t survive the flight in. And I’m talking about Enemy Prisoners of War because we didn’t really take on that many American troops. We did at first and then it really dropped off and we became the hospital for EPWs – not all Enemy Prisoners of War but mostly Iraqi people. Very few Americans came aboard after that. They were few and far between.
Once they had surgery, my job was basically to give them their medications, changing bandages, that kind of thing. Occasionally we’d get a mass casualty. One time we received fifty patients at once. I would go into receiving where they were all triaged and my thing that repeatedly happened as I went through casualty receiving was to draw blood from the patients that came on so we could get them typed and crossed so that we could have their blood type on hand for when they received their surgery. That part was probably the craziest – working in casualty receiving – because you saw the people come in and what shape they were in, initially. That was definitely the wildest part.
RH: Were they flown into the ship or were they brought on by ferry?
SP: They were all flown in by helicopter.
RH: In receiving, what were some of your initial impressions like? How did you feel?
SP: I felt patriotic and proud to be serving my country. I don’t know. I had a real sense of pride and felt like I was doing something and playing a role in the fight against terrorism. At the time that’s exactly how I felt.
RH: After you received all these patients, how long would they stay aboard the ship?
SP: It honestly was really hard to get rid of the Iraqi patients. It seemed like very few of them were flying out. Quite a few of the ones that I worked with – there were, literally, fifteen different wards on that ship – in the aft end of the ship is where we put all the American troops. That way they wouldn’t be by all the Iraqi people because you didn’t put them in the same room together – it was just something we didn’t want to do.
I, very shortly, worked with the American troops and then I got pushed to the forward end of the ship which was the wards with the Iraqis but the women and children Iraqis went to different wards. Where the men ended up is where I worked and most of the ones I was working with were considered Enemy Prisoners of War. They were fighting against our troops and they had been shot or injured or whatever happened. That’s where I worked most of the time.
RH: Were there any unique challenges dealing with EPWs?
SP: There was because some of the EPWs really hated us. Straight up, they hated us. They’d tell you they wanted you to die and stuff like that. Trying to deliver medical care to someone like that – they would kind of welcome the medical care when things got bad then all of a sudden they’d be telling you they hate you. I think one of the big things was, the story has it that they were addicted to drugs before they came on – not morphine but they did regular opium, I guess, while they were over there. With the communication breakdown of translation I didn’t fully understand it. It’s been a while but there was clearly opiate use before they came there. So the moment they wanted morphine, they would all of a sudden be your buddy [laughs] and it was this odd back and forth of, “Hey! So, can I get some morphine?” And then they’d be like, “I hate you, you American!” [RH laughs]
RH: Are there any Iraqis in particular that stick out?
SP: Yes! There is. So when they came on you couldn’t just take names. These people didn’t have identification or anything so initially, when they were coming on, they just made up names for them. Literally, this one that comes to mind is Einstein Wolfenstein. That’s what they named him. So as these people came in and they ran out of ideas for names and they were just like, “Hey, this is honestly just not the best way to do this,” they all became either John Doe or Jane Doe with a number. Like, John Doe number 514, you know? I remember him.
But Einstein Wolfenstein. I definitely remember him because he asked me to kill him on multiple occasions. It was like a daily thing where he asked me to overdose him on morphine so he could die because, supposedly, the Iraqi military had come into his house and said, “You’ll either fight the Americans or we’ll kill your wife and your kids.” And they killed his wife and kids. That one stuck out. He just begged me to kill him. He was miserable. He got blown up somehow. It looked like he stepped on a landmine, I think it was. His heel was gone. It was really weird. It just looked like a shark had almost bit it out. It was just gone and he had shrapnel all over his body. That guy stuck out.
RH: What was it like working with the Iraqis who were not enemy combatants?
SP: Honestly, a lot of them were really friendly. They knew a lot about American culture – more than I ever would have thought. They spoke decent English a lot of the time. Some of them you could have a full conversation with. They knew everything you were saying. They would know American pop songs. They would sing Michael Jackson to me and stuff like that. They could even moonwalk. [laughs] Some were fun to hang out with, honestly.
RH: Any of those that stick out in particular?
SP: Yes. That was John Doe number 514. I remember him because he lost one of his arms and the front of his chest was all pulled off by some round of ammunition. It just grazed across the front of his chest and blew his arm off. He was a really scrawny guy. A lot of these people were malnourished. He was really thin and the bullet took his arm off but he would still moonwalk and he still had a smile on his face and everything. He was a fun guy to be with.
He told me he got out of work – literally walked outside from washing dishes in a cafe – and was shot and went down. And either – I don’t know if it was a Corpsman or a medic from the Army – but one of ours went and gave him aid and he got flown out to us.
RH: Did you have any transformative or significant events that informed your deployment?
RH: Yes. Or significant events.
PS: Significant events? Like something that sticks out that happened?
RH: Yes. Something aside what you already told me.
SP: Yes. A couple, actually. One thing that sticks out is the first time we had a mass casualty. Before that we only had a few patients come aboard our ship and one was a young Iraqi boy who got shot three times in the chest. I didn’t really see him come in. It was after he had surgery and he just got stabilized and came to the ward and I saw him.
It was just different seeing someone at Casualty Receiving. The first time I went to Casualty Receiving we had, like, thirty-five patients come in and they were all Iraqi. I just remember that when the elevator doors opened on the ship, this guy came out on a gurney being pushed and his wife and his daughter were next to him and his arm was completely blown off. It was laying on his chest with him – his arm was just laying on his chest – and it literally looked like when you see hamburger come out of a meat grinder. That’s the way his arm and his shoulder looked. That’s the moment where I was like, “This is fucking real war. This is gnarly.” I can still see this clear as day. It’s weird.
That moment I think – for lack of a better term – popped my cherry. [laughs] That’s a horrible way to say it but after that, as patients came in wounded, shot or burned or whatnot, it wasn’t as hard to handle as that first time. That first time I think I almost fainted.
RH: As the deployment progressed and some of these patients started to feel better, did you see some spirits rise as things went on?
SP: Yes. It seemed like most of the patients, period, were happy to be receiving medical care. I honestly don’t think a lot of them had had much of it to begin with. I mean, a lot of these people came in very malnourished. They’d have lice and acinetobacter virus which is a virus that lives in their soil over there. A lot of them were ill to begin with and they were finally receiving quality medical care. I think that we delivered great medical care to these people and they were eating three square meals a day. They were always happy when food came around and they would get the medical care. I’ve got to say that a lot of them were happy but the EPWs – the full-blown Iraqi militants – hated us. They hated us and that wasn’t changing. They stuck to their guns of hating us until they wanted more morphine or food and then they’d act like they were your buddy. Then they got it and they went back to hating you.
RH: How long in total were you deployed on the Comfort?
SP: I believe it was a hundred and eleven days. I thought it was one, one, one if I’m not mistaken. If it wasn’t then it was right there.
RH: What was the most challenging period of the deployment: the beginning, the middle or the end?
SP: I think the beginning because when we got to that ship, it wasn’t prepared. It wasn’t really fully prepared to take on the patients and handle them. Some of the supplies were outdated so we had to organize it and to get it up and ready to receive the patients was, honestly, the biggest pain in the butt. That was hard, dude. We were putting in a lot of hours every day organizing these supplies and getting everything ready and having a system laid out and practicing – practicing everything that we potentially though could come our way. Even chemical, biological and radiological warfare. We never saw that but we were really prepared for that.
All the prep work seemed to be the hardest for me. I don’t know, it’s hard to say. Definitely the end was easy though because after a while the patients stopped coming in. Right at that time George Bush did the “Mission Accomplished” speech, things did die down and it seemed like it was over with. Things really did simmer down. There weren’t a lot of patients coming in and that was about the end of the Comfort’s deployment.
RH: As you gained more experience, did you change?
SP: Oh definitely. Absolutely. I had confidence and I wasn’t that grossed out by all the gunshot wounds and explosions. It was a part of every day, you know? So naturally after a couple months of this, I knew that’s how my day was going to be. I expected it.
RH: How did you general outlook change throughout the deployment, if at all?
SP: Honestly, I knew that they wouldn’t put up much of a fight. As it went on it really seemed like we took over Iraq pretty quick, which we did. We got Saddam out of power very fast and the initial thought of what was going to happen obviously turned into something completely different. But at the time, what we thought of happening really did come quick and it was rewarding. It was like, “We defeated these people, this country with terrorists in it and weapons of mass destruction.” We accomplished this goal that we were after. We did it quick and, really, it seemed fairly easy considering the amount of time we did it in. A sense of pride, honestly, came over me. I don’t know if that answers the question.
RH: Yes. It does. What was the most challenging non-operational aspect of deploying? And I mean, when you weren’t working with patients or working directly, what was the most challenging aspect of deployment?
SP: Oh man. That’s a good one. You’re out to sea and there’s a limited amount of resources. There’s just a limit on things you can do. I guess, just downtime. I’ve always heard that downtime is a sailor’s worst enemy and in a sense it really is because you can only play cards so much and dealing with when I wasn’t working with, “What do I do?” I don’t want to be on a ship out in the middle of the sea. I have hobbies like skateboarding and playing music. You didn’t get to bring a musical instrument out to the middle of the ocean. I did bring my skateboard but they weren’t about to let me skateboard around the ship. [RH laughs] I think that was the hardest thing. You can’t go on a date with a girl. It was a totally different lifestyle. It was a lifestyle lacking in the amount of life. [laughs]
RH: Before we start to talk a little bit about coming home, are there any other memories or significant experiences that you had on your deployment?
SP: There’s honestly, probably, quite a few. I don’t know how much time you’ve got here.
RH: I’ve got plenty of time!
SP: I’ll try and go over a couple of them real quick. When we were near the port of Bahrain – I can’t remember which time because we had to go in and out of Bahrain a couple times, I can’t even exactly remember how many times – but having to do that, one time these boats were coming up the side of our ship, these little speed boats. And with what happened to the USS Cole and the suicide bombing that was going on, on land, it was freaky. It was out on the smoke deck smoking while they were headed at the side of our ship. And faster than I ever would have thought anyone could have reacted, suddenly they dropped a giant .50 cal turret-type thing just a couple feet away from me and told everyone to step back. There were guys out there with rocket propelled grenades and shit. A dude on a megaphone speaking in Arabic apparently was telling them, “Step back, step back, step back! You need to get away! Do not come closer.” And they just kept coming up the side of our ship. I literally was sweating bullets, white knuckle ride-type thing. I was just like, “What the fuck is going on? Is this really about to go down in front of me?” I felt like these guys were going to kill us.
They kept saying it and these boats just kept coming at us. These two little speed boats, right up the side of our ship. I was like, “What the fuck is wrong with these people?” And then they just fired the .50 cal, not at the boats, just “cha, cha, cha, cha!” and let it rip a couple times. And all of a sudden they just turned. It was like they too a right turn and off into the sunset just disappeared. I still don’t understand what it’s about. Why were they coming over to our ship? I don’t know why but it was really scary. I felt really vulnerable at that time. I was like, “If that happened to the USS Cole, it can happen to me too. It can happen to us.” At the moment it felt like that might have been going down.
RH: What else?
SP: Another one I’d have to say is the day we flew all the Iraqis out. It came out that the Iraqis were going – the EPWs, they were the hard people to get rid of. The rest of them, there must have been an easier way to get rid of the women and children but the EPWs were hard to pawn off. We couldn’t just sail them back to America on our ship. So finally there was a place for them. I guess it was a British-run camp of some sort or prison. I guess that’s where they went. That’s what I heard. How much documentation? I never saw anything.
Either way, so we’re flying them out by the big helos – the double-bladed ones. We called them Sea Knights. The ship was rocking like I’d never seen before. I’m talking about an insane amount of rocking. You couldn’t even stand up. I just grabbed onto a desk and sat there. We were still flying them out and it was bad weather. It was just an odd thing. Of all the days for something like that to hit, it was the day we were getting rid of all these patients.
So you’ve got a bunch of people on a boat rocking back and forth that are already nauseous from morphine because you’re treating their pain for the gunshot wounds and all of a sudden dude, all of them started puking everywhere. All of them are puking on the floor and there was nothing you could do about it. The ship was rocking so bad, you couldn’t just go clean up puke. You had to just let it be and deal with the stench of it. [RH laughs] And you could see the puke just rolling back and forth across the floors and that I’ll never forget that. There must have been a dozen of them puked in my ward alone. It was just all this puke all over the floor and there was nothing you could do about it. You just had to leave it there and slowly move them out once they got better. Once they were gone we cleaned the ship from top to bottom anyways.
That day also, one of the guys I liked, John Doe number 514, I wrote on his cast. He had a cast and I wrote something. I drew a barbed-wire band around it, like the cheesiest thing ever. But I just did it like, “Bye dude! Good luck!” And this one other Corpsman who was a total shithead, no one liked him, thought it would be funny. Once he saw me do that he was like, “Oh, I’m gonna write on someone.” He went up to this one Iraqi and he drew a target on him that said, “Shoot me here,” on his cast. And, holy shit, he went to fly out and they saw it, they pulled him back in – the Iraqi – found out who did it, they had to change his cast because they couldn’t send him out like that, and that kid got it. He was an E4 and he lost it all. Man, it was a big deal. The Abu Ghraib trial, I believe, had already gone down or it was exploited or something so that was pretty memorable. I didn’t like that guy. No one cared for him. He was a selfish asshole to do that and to get caught doing it was the best. It was like, “Oh good!” [laughs]
RH: What else? Any more?
SP: Some of the patients – the ones that got shot in the head and survived – I remember all them. I remember a lot of the patients. The Iraqi ones, it seems, the Iraqi ones that I saw who got shot in the head, one basically returned to, basically, a brand newborn baby. They would just kind of lay there and drool and walk back and forth. That was sad. It was weird seeing that. You just really wonder, do you keep them alive at this point, you know? The type of life isn’t for anyone to live. There was a Marine who was eighteen and he was in a Humvee accident where his Humvee rolled and he smashed his head bad. He lost his mind. He lost his IQ. He didn’t have balance anymore and lost his equilibrium and he couldn’t remember anything. We’d tell him, “Hey man, don’t get up to go to the bathroom. Wait for us. The ship’s rocking. You don’t have balance.” And he’d just take off. He couldn’t remember anything, he couldn’t read any more. He lost so much of his mind or his IQ or his intelligence. It was really sad seeing that. This young boy, he was eighteen. That was a bummer.
Lots of people had injuries, people got shot in weird places. Most of the patients were shot in their leg. I’ve got to say that. Shot in the leg, missing arms and they came to us for care. Or they would be shot in the head. Every once in a while they would be shot in the head or something like that. Those ones that stuck around, you could see the inside of their head. It was weird.
RH: Before we go onto coming home, any other deployment stories that stick out in your head?
SP: I do remember one thing. There’s this one story that always stuck with me. This patient, it was weird. He broke his leg but he was a Naval photographer who was rappelling out of a helicopter down a rope. He put on the wrong gloves to rappel down the rope and as he was rappelling down the rope, his hands were burning due to the wrong gloves. He let go of the rope and he fell down and I think he might have broke his back. I know he broke his leg and messed up his back. Maybe his back was broke. I don’t recall, exactly. He had some pretty bad injuries and burns to his hands. But I’ve never understood, how would you put on the wrong gloves? That’s like your thing. That’s what you do. Why were there another pair of gloves that weren’t the right gloves in that place? I’ve never understood that. How did that happen? That guy always stuck out.
RH: Can you talk a little bit about your immediate post-deployment experiences?
SP: Post deployment? Hmm. Honestly I don’t remember much of it. I remember they gave us a questionnaire. It was like, “Do you think you might be suffering from any post-traumatic stress disorder?” There were a lot of questionnaires dealing with that. I remember that. I filled it out. It was mandatory that we fill it out. I think that was it, honestly. That’s all I remember. It was just a couple questions.
RH: What was the best and worst part about coming home?
SP: The best and the worst? They flew most of our staff back to Bethesda Maryland because they needed a certain amount of crew to man the ship and clean it. I volunteered to stay aboard the ship because I thought it would be fun to sail back and pull into different countries and whatnot. Going back and cleaning all day and all night – it couldn’t have been more boring.
The worst part I guess is, honestly, the people who flew back, they had a big celebration for them. Like a heroes’ parade for them. It was a big deal as they pulled in. They were all treated like heroes and the ones that decided to sail back, when we pulled in it was, like, nothing. [laughs] That was lame. It was like, “Ugghh, oh man.” I didn’t get that special treatment, you know? I didn’t get to be the sailor, the classical picture of the sailor kissing some broad in the middle of Times Square. [RH laughs] I didn’t get to play that role because there was no broad there waiting. [laughs]
RH: Can you talk a little bit about your fellow Corpsmen? What were they like on the deployment?
SP: I don’t know. A lot like me. Most of the Corpsmen were dedicated. Like me, we just kind of did our job. I don’t know what to say about them. There’s a couple of people with shitty attitudes. Those are the worst because it is rough out to sea and it’s depressing dealing with all these people who are shot up so to keep your chin up is a challenge. You have to remind yourself to do it, honestly. So I definitely did not like the few that had bad attitudes. They didn’t want to do their job. The one who got in trouble – he acted as if he shouldn’t have to give any medical care to any Iraqis because they were the enemy. He didn’t care about them or anything. He never got his way, of course, but that was his attitude about it. I hated that. I couldn’t stand that mentality, listening to him every day and having to hear him talk. If we could have just duct taped his mouth closed it would have been good. [RH laughs]
RH: Did you have any other outstanding Corpsmen that stuck out?
SP: There were a couple really good ones. I’m having a hard time remembering all their names. I remember my buddies’ names on the ship but they may not have been the best Corpsmen even though they tried. I remember – I think her name was Turner – this black girl who was a Corpsman and, dude, she knew medications like the back of her hand. It was like she was the drug book. She knew all those medications. She was great at her job and it was difficult to get an IV into a lot of the Iraqis because of the amount of sun they saw. If you could imagine poking a needle through leather, their skin was, honestly, it was tough. It could be very difficult to get an IV in some of these people. And I just remember she was really good, she was always patient, she taught me a lot. Her name was Turner but I don’t remember her first name. She was a stellar Corpsman. That’s what we called the good ones. The great ones, they’re stellar.
RH: Good to go. Alright, let’s see. So after, you sailed all the way back to Baltimore?
RH: After that did you return to Bethesda?
SP: Yes, for another year and a half.
RH: Was this deployment your only deployment while you were in?
SP: Yes it was.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Let’s talk a little bit about getting out. How has your military experience shaped your life since you got out?
SP: I think it’s helped get jobs, honestly. People kind of like hearing that you’re ex-military. But I’ve got to say, my experience in the medical field wasn’t respected by the hospitals I applied to. Or when I applied for a job there they didn’t care what I did while I was in the service. Some of the jobs didn’t even require a college diploma but it was if that wasn’t respected. It was my trade at that time. I was like, “This is what I do.” I really felt like I’d done a lot. I was pretty well experienced by the time I left but I couldn’t get it across to them.
RH: Do you still communicate with anyone from the Comfort?
SP: Yes I do, actually. On a regular basis. One other sailor. He worked in the galley. He was a Corpsman but somehow they had a couple more Corpsmen than they needed and they literally just picked at random to have them clean dishes in the galley and he was that unlucky dude. He got in the deep sink, as they say.
RH: Do you communicate with any other veterans?
SP: Yes, I do. A number of veterans. If I meet them I feel like, for the most part, we usually hit it off, other veterans. We understand something else. I can’t really put it into words but there is some sort of bond there. We put up with the sillier side of the military. I don’t know quite how to put that into words. All the hurry up and wait.
RH: Let’s go ahead and shift a little bit and talk about Iraq’s current state. How do you feel about the rise of ISIS and the current direction that Iraq is taking?
SP: Oh man. I think it’s a travesty. To think that all the effort put in over there, the lives lost, the bloodshed, the money that our country and our taxpayers have put in and to see it flip – I don’t if flip’s quite the right word because I still have some hope up for it, it hasn’t flipped yet – but to see it heading back that way is just devastating.
RH: We’re going to move into some spiritual questions. Has deploying changed your perception of life and death and, if so, how?
SP: Yes because I definitely saw my fair share of death. I was young, you know? I was nineteen or twenty years old at the time. To see all the injuries and some people didn’t make it. I guess I’ve come to an understanding of death that I hadn’t before. It’s all temporary I guess, life is.
RH: Has deploying affected you spiritually and, if so, how?
SP: I was an atheist before that but I think after seeing how things went down I don’t know if I’d ever believe. But if there was a chance I was going to believe in a higher power being there for us and having love and compassion, I feel like He would have stepped in somewhere there. I’m an atheist through and through. I probably have always been. I don’t think I’ll ever change.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Let’s shift it up a little bit. What’s your happiest memory of the entire time you served? And this could be your entire time in the Navy.
SP: The happiest memory of being in the service? All five years?
RH: Yes. All five years.
SP: Aww jeez. The happiest? [sighs] Wow. I guess you get that happy feeling when you graduate boot camp. I was pretty pumped to be done with boot camp. Getting my DD 214 was a good moment too. The moment I drove outside the gate. You were in the car! You remember. [RH laughs] I was literally blaring music, windows down, devil horns out the window, screaming, punching the steering wheel like, “I’m out of the military! I’m free!” I don’t know if I could top that.
RH: I had one year to go at that point and I was a little “ugghh” but I was happy for you. [laughs]
SP: You were jealous, I’m sure. [RH laughs] You had to have been.
RH: What, if anything, do you miss about the military?
SP: Being able to call people out. Here in the civilian world I feel like a lot of people get away with a lot in the workplace where in the service you’d get, “What the hell is this?! Why are you fucking this up?” You can just throw it out there like that and that’s just how it goes. If you’re not doing your job, someone’s going to call you out. If you’re fucking something up as we’d say, you’re going to pay the price and out here people are like, [in a whiny voice] “Well, you can’t do that.” People will just do it over and over again. They would make you hate life for a little while in the service if you weren’t doing things correctly. They would micro manage you to the point that you didn’t think existed. You would cave. You’d lose that fight in the military. I kind of miss expecting people to do their job. You knew they were going to.
RH: Alright. What was the best MRE?
SP: The best MRE? [laughs] Wow! Oh man. I’m trying to think of a good one. A lot of people said the burrito one was but I did not agree. The Salisbury steak one was decent. Want to know which one was surprisingly good? The vegetarian lasagna. I remember I happened to be taking a crap once when they handed out the MREs and I hurried up but by the time I got down there – it was two days’ worth that they handed out all at once – the only thing left was vegetarian ones and I was so bummed. I was completely devastated. I was like, “I have to eat vegetarian food out here.” I didn’t even know vegetarian MREs existed at the time. But I was really pleased with the fact that the vegetarian lasagna, honestly, tasted really good.
RH: Alright. Good to go. What was the best chow hall that you’ve ever been to?
SP: There was a good one?
SP: It all seemed to be dry and bland. A lot of dry food. I couldn’t believe how dry some of the stuff they served me. A hamburger and it didn’t seem like there was any amount of moisture in the burger at all. You had to have a gallon of water to choke it down. Oh God. The one at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda was pretty good. I remember they had some decent food. But none of them were good. I shouldn’t even use that word. None of them were good.
RH: What’s the funniest story you have?
SP: The funniest story?
RH: Or it could be stories.
SP: Fun stories. [laughs] Of the deployment or of the service?
RH: The whole thing.
SP: Oh dude, I got one. This, by the way, is of Xin Qi who was a combat Corpsman who was killed by a suicide bomber in Afghanistan. He was my roommate, he was my little sidekick, he worked everywhere with me. He was my apprentice. He literally followed me around all day and all night and shared a room with me.
The night before I left the service, a lot of people were gone. There were four of us to the room in the Marine Corps barracks and there were two beds and one cot so someone had to sleep on the linoleum floor, like the hardest floor you can imagine. People were bummed. They were sad to see me leave. They liked my sense of humor, honestly. That was probably a big majority of it. Qi had a positive attitude and he tried to cheer everyone up always. He always cracked jokes and make people feel awkward and uncomfortable just to get a laugh out of it. And he thought it’d be cool if he did a front flip from one bed to the other, all the way across the room. He did it and he went through the wall. Literally, he put a hole in the wall, shaped like a human. [RH laughs] You could see the shoulders, the head, everything. A human-shaped hole, MASSIVE, in the barracks room, I had to check out of the next day.
Everyone just, jaws dropped and hit the floor. Besides on Tom and Jerry or Looney Tunes, I’d never seen a human-shaped hold in the wall. I had to tell Qi there, after I made sure he was alright and I kind of gathered my thoughts, I was like, “Dude, I have to tell on you tomorrow or I’m going to be called back in.” [laughs] There was a giant, man-shaped hole in the wall of my barracks room but I swear I had nothing to do with it. Talk to this guy, you know? I had to throw him under the bus to make sure I was free. I couldn’t really put that before my freedom. [RH laughs] That was hilarious. It really was.
RH: What do you think is the most important quality that somebody needs to be a successful Corpsman?
SP: Oh man. I think that they have to have confidence. I think confidence comes into staying calm and cool when you see some crazy shit. When you see someone come in badly injured, the full-blown casualties. I think confidence comes into, “I can do this. I can do my job.” So, confidence.
RH: If you could communicate something to young Corpsmen who will be fighting the wars of the future, what would it be?
SP: Wow. Something to communicate to them. I think that they just learn from experience but keep your head down, I guess? I don’t know. That’s pretty fucking important. Assess the situation. That’s got to be important. When you say Corpsman I think of the combat Corpsmen out with the Marines. I don’t really think about what I did. So those ones I would say assess your situation. Deliver the medical care that you can but don’t add another casualty to it by diving in. You hear about those stories and those are the worst.
RH: Is there anything that I left out that you would like to address?
SP: No. I got to drop something about Qi in there and he was my buddy. He made the ultimate sacrifice and I think I kind of got it all.
There is one thing. I think it’s important if people read this that weren’t in the military. Just a little understanding of the Iraqi people. I remember these girls came in, these female Iraqis, and they literally had their legs blown off. They still wouldn’t take off their veils in my presence. They still thought it was a pressing issue to keep their face covered in the presence of a man even though they were basically dying. That was a regular thing with them whenever I did see the females. They made it an issue to have them on their own ward and keep them there but sometimes they’d be wheeled down to radiology and I had another patient down there. You’d see them and they still absolutely lived in fear of showing their face, breaking the rules, Sharia law. They put it in the utmost importance and it was really sad. It really communicated a little bit more of what freedom is, that they didn’t have the freedom to show their face.
RH: So my last question is, what specific accomplishment are you most proud of during your service?
SP: Accomplishment during my service? It would have to be one of those, I guess it would have to be one of those mass casualty drills where people came in and I got their blood drawn, got them typed and crossed and ready for their blood infusions for surgery. It was difficult, man. There were people coming in so fast and I was trying to stay focused. But I really did a great job at it. I really did. I was making runs. I was moving faster than I ever have before and I was being accurate at drawing blood. Somehow, I don’t know what happened. Something took over me and made me get my job done.
RH: Alright, good to go. Anything else?
SP: No. It’ll probably pop into my head when I lay down tonight. [laughs]
Department of Defense casualty notification for Hospital Corpsman Xin Qi:
Release No: 064-10
January 24, 2010
DOD Identifies Navy Casualty
The Department of Defense announced today the death of a sailor who was supporting Operation Enduring Freedom.
Petty Officer 2nd Class Xin Qi, 25, of Cordova, Tenn., died Jan. 23, while supporting combat operations in Afghanistan. Qi was assigned to Fourth Light Armored Reconnaissance Battalion, Marine Expeditionary Brigade – Afghanistan.
For further information related to this release, contact Marine Forces Reserve Public Affairs at 504-235-6128.