Stephen's career as a medical officer in the Navy spanned thirty years. Immediately following September 11th, he deployed aboard the USS Enterprise, CVN 65. During the opening days of the war in Iraq, he deployed with Alpha Surgical Company, First Health Services Battalion. He also deployed twice to Afghanistan, first in support of the Marine Special Operations Command and then as the Command Surgeon for the Second Marine Expeditionary Brigade in Helmand province. He retired from the Navy in 2012.
Stephen's 2004 article in Navy Medicine can be found here.
Interview conducted on June 6, 2015 over the phone
Present: Richard Hayden and Stephen McCartney
Transcribed by Richard Hayden
Richard Hayden: What is your full name?
Stephen McCartney: Stephen Francis McCartney.
RH: What branch of the military did you serve in and what years?
SM: United States Navy, 1982 to 2012.
RH: What was your rank when you got out?
SM: Navy Captain, O6.
RH: What was your job specialty?
SM: My code was 2105, Physician.
RH: What were some of the units that you served in throughout your career?
SM: When I first entered the Navy I was a general surgeon. I served on I guess what we call the Blue Side in Navy hospitals – Camp Pendleton Navy Hospital, Orlando, Navy Hospital Oakland. Then I went into the Reserves for eleven years and I was assigned to the Marine Corps Reserves as a battalion and regimental surgeon for eleven years. Then I went back on active duty and was at Naval Hospital Balboa as faculty in vascular surgery. And then I deployed to OIF with the First Marine Expeditionary force. After that I was the Third Marine Expeditionary Force command surgeon in Okinawa. In 2006 I departed there after three years and was the command surgeon for Marine Special Operations Command at Camp Lejeune. Then I deployed in 2009 to Afghanistan with the Second Marine Expeditionary Brigade as the brigade surgeon. I came back in 2010 and spent my last two years as a surgeon at Naval Hospital Camp Lejeune where I retired in December of 2012.
RH: What years were you in the Reserves?
SM: I joined the Reserves in 1982 when I was in surgical training at UCLA. I was in the Reserves for two years then I went on active duty in 1984. So two years there from ‘82 to ‘84. I was in the Reserves from 1990 to 2001.
RH: What motivated you to join the military?
SM: A military family. My dad was retired Air Force and I was in surgical training for six years at UCLA. About my fourth year out of the six years I said, “you know, I can either go into private practice or…” I was working with a bunch of Navy surgeons or Navy doctors, guys who had been there two, three or five years with the fleet. They got out and were back training in surgery. So I heard a lot of Navy stories about aircraft carriers and it just seemed like a cool thing to do. I figured if I didn’t do it now, I certainly couldn’t do it when I got older.
So I went directly into the Navy Medical Corps. I got a commission as a Lieutenant and then two years later I entered active duty as a Navy general surgeon. I only had anticipated staying in two or three years and it’s funny how a whole career builds out of it. Basically I wanted to serve my country and say I was in the Navy at one time. It was just a sense of pride and participation. Largely I just wanted to take the time out and serve the country and get some unique experiences that other people don’t get, especially surgeons.
RH: OK. How did your family feel about your decision?
SM: Well, my wife – I had one small child – but my wife, after all those years in medical school and long years of training, she was happy just to move away and start the adventure. She’s very adventurous at heart. My dad, obviously, was very pleased that I was going to serve in the military. My brother was a former Marine way back in the early seventies so it kind of came naturally. It was no great shock to anybody. They just thought it was a good idea so that was the feeling.
RH: Where were you on September 11th?
SM: I was assigned to Naval Hospital Balboa and I had just come back on active duty from the Reserves three months earlier. I came in in June of 2001. I went down to Balboa and on 9/11 I saw what happened when I woke up that morning heading to work. I certainly got the details once I got to work. But I was going to work at Balboa at the Navy Medical Center.
RH: What was Balboa like on that day?
SM: People were kind of stunned. When I parked my car I ran into two enlisted people who had been listening to the news and everybody was stunned. Everybody was glued to the television and it was a mix of people who had been watching it since it had happened. There was a mix of people that were coming to work maybe from a long drive and didn’t know anything so it was a real mix of emotions and concern.
Especially being in the military, we all were asking ourselves, “what does this mean for us?” We’re being attacked. What’s the response? What are we going to be doing about it? Just a lot of questions and obviously very few answers on that day.
RH: Where in the US were you stationed when you deployed?
SM: The first time I deployed for OIF, I deployed out of the naval hospital in Balboa. I was assigned to the First Force Services Support Group as an alternative. We all had different platforms so to speak. My platform was support to the Marine Corps. We were Alpha Company that I was with. We were drawn mostly off of Balboa and Camp Pendleton. They gave us orders and we went down and trained and we were deployed from Balboa.
RH: Did you serve in Iraq, Afghanistan or both?
RH: OK. How many times did you deploy post-9/11?
SM: Right after 9/11 I was a surgeon for the USS Enterprise [CVN 65] battle group. I went right to the Persian Gulf several days after 9/11. I was on the Enterprise when our battle group launched the first Tomcats and Hornets into Afghanistan. And then about a year later I deployed with the Marines with the first Marine Expeditionary Force in January of 2003 to Kuwait at the time before the war had started. I deployed twice to Afghanistan years later.
RH: On that deployment on the Enterprise, what was your job and what were some the things that you were involved in?
SM: I was the surgeon on the Enterprise. It was a pretty robust medical department there with various specialists but I relieved the general surgeon that was on board. I flew to Bahrain and relieved him so he could go home and take his board examinations. Of course several days after that they launched the first strikes into Afghanistan and I was just kept on board for the rest of the deployment.
I was the senior medical officer even though there was an administrative guy running the department. I was the guy with the most seniority as far as training and in charge of quality assurance and actually doing the surgery that came on board. Basically it’s a big industrial facility so you get all those types of injuries that you would in an industry and then abdominal infections, appendectomies, trauma to the abdomen, falling down stairs. You get a wide array of industrial-type injuries. Largely, that was most of my responsibility. It was to be able to provide that level of surgical care to the battle group.
RH: Did the Enterprise actually have a surgical ward on it?
SM: Yes. They have two operating rooms with an anesthesiologist on deck and all the support facilities, even a small ICU with some of the more modern technology available. It’s quite robust. I’d been on aircraft carriers before years earlier on my first enlistment and it was very, very impressive the degree of technology and the specialty care and talent available amongst the medical department – both nurses and Corpsmen.
RH: Do you have any particular memories of that deployment that stick out?
SM: I remember the heat. [laughs] The Persian Gulf was pretty hot. We did a fair amount of operating but I think what I remember the most is watching the jets take off from that platform we all stand on. It’s called Vulture’s Row. It’s up about two or three decks and just watching the nighttime ops with the Navy and Marine aviators taking off and seeing them the next morning coming in, getting their corn flakes and breakfast after a night of combat – aerial combat – dropping bombs. So for me it was new. I was all of fifty-something years old but I had never been on a big platform like that during actual combat operations. I think what I remember mostly is less the medical part of it than just watching how our country responds from the sea. I have a lot of good memories. I was really impressed with the people I worked with.
RH: Let’s go ahead and let’s move onto your deployment in 2003. What was your unit and what was its mission?
SM: Our unit was Alpha Surgical Company. We were part of the First Health Services Battalion in the First Force Services Support group which was one of the three major commands under the First Marine Expeditionary Force. We were one of three surgical companies. We had Alpha, Bravo and Charlie. I was in Alpha Company which kind of spearheaded things early on. We were the first to set up in Kuwait and we were the first to take all the casualties the first seven to ten days before the other two companies got inserted into Iraq when they secured certain areas.
Our job was to provide top-level surgical care to all injuries and issues. There were plenty before we even started the war. There were misfires, there was errant gunfire, there were fractures, there were the usual things that happen to Marines and sailors. So we did twenty-five surgeries before the war even started. We set up a fully-functional forward surgical command and the business started right away. We trained real quick and by the time hostilities ensued, we were ready to go.
RH: You were the lead surgeon in Alpha Company, correct?
SM: Yes. I was what they call the Chief of Professional Services. There was an administrative head, a medical service guy, who did all the paperwork and the admin leadership but I was in charge of all things medical. So I just made sure the quality was up, the training was up, and made sure that all of the different specialists that were in our company had what they needed to do top flight medical and surgical care. And I made decisions based on resources and all the things that go with running a hundred and eighty man company.
RH: You said you were in Kuwait initially. Did you push into Iraq?
SM: Our company stayed put up at the border until Bravo and Charlie got inserted and then the volume of our injuries cessated a bit because we had assets further forward. Then the group surgeon had left so I was inserted into the FSSG or the Force Services Support Group surgical slot and at that point I inserted in country into Iraq. So I left my previous job and went a couple of notches higher for the rest of the deployment.
RH: What were your initial impressions of Iraq like?
SM: The part we saw, the southern part, was very desolate and extremely hot. Basically they had cities, they had communities. They had a lot of things but half of it didn’t work. I was impressed with the way that the cities were laid out. The people themselves varied from being somewhat friendly to overtly hostile. The children that we saw as we went through the towns were all out giving us the “V” for victory sign and were very happy but you could tell the adults were angry and some were extremely hostile to us. It seemed like they had a lot going for them but nothing worked. It was like nobody did the maintenance on the system.
RH: How far up into Iraq did you go?
SM: I went as far as Al Kut and a place called Diwaniyah. It’s about eighty miles from Baghdad. I got into Babylon which is where the MEF headquarters was after we secured it. I did not get into Baghdad. I got about eighty miles from it. Tallil Airbase, Al Kut, Diwaniyah and Babylon were the areas that I was at.
RH: What were some of the notable events that occurred during your deployment?
SM: We hadn’t really heard that we were going to engage even though the word was out and then a day before we thought it would happen, it happened. We had just had a Scud attack that went over our base in Kuwait. Just as we were coming out of the scud bunkers and were doing an alpha count to make sure everybody was accounted for, we saw 53E [spoken as fifty-three Echo] helicopters coming in and that was non-stop. They were already having casualties. So I was impressed with how quick it started without a whole lot of fanfare. Out of nowhere we just started getting helicopters. It wasn’t like someone ran out of a tent and said, “here they come folks. Get ready!” It was just coming.
We went on for the better part of ten days with a large volume of Marine and Army injured and fatalities. So I was initially impressed with how quick it all started without a whole lot of warning but luckily we were ready for it. I’d hate to see the situation if we weren’t. I was really impressed with the professionalism of everybody. All of us had never been in combat before but when it actually hit, everybody just switched into their professional mode and not until much later did we actually start talking about this or that. We just did our job.
RH: How does a surgical company operate? Does it move? Is it permanent? Is it semi-permanent? Are you able to deploy to different areas in a combat zone? How does that work?
SM: It’s mobile. It’s transported on a series of large five ton trucks. I think to get it up and really running it takes the better part of two or three days depending on the power. It runs on generator power so once you’ve got power and electricity, the medical part of it is pretty good. You just take it out of its boxes, you plug everything in, you get your sterilizers working. Everyone is trained to set up and take down rather quick. But a surgical company, the TO on it is usually between a hundred and fifty and a hundred and eighty people. It’s mobile and you can move it. We were set up pretty well permanently but if we needed to break down and move, it probably could have been done within a couple of days. It’s a pretty big, heavy item.
From the company we break off smaller surgical platforms and they can be deployed within two or three hours. They’re in boxes and we’re trained to set up and move forward. It’s a pretty intricate ballet identifying identifying requirements and getting the medical expertise out there. The company itself is pretty heavy but it by no means is permanent.
RH: What are some of the particular challenges that you faced operating in Iraq?
SM: Communication mostly. As you’re moving forward, the Marines, as you know, are just extremely mobile. They don’t sit behind the lines in a formal camp. They keep moving. So the biggest problem we had was communications. We always want to know, as medical people, what’s coming and what’s going on out there so we can anticipate and do some medical planning and use our medical intelligence assets to make sure we’re not caught with our pants down. And no matter how hard you try you get calls here, you get calls there and then when you’ve got nothing coming in, next thing you know a helicopter comes in with nine people burned and we never even heard about it. So it’s just the fog of war and nothing’s perfect. Largely we just had to adapt our casualty evacuation response to the situation and basically always be on guard. I would say the one thing that was the biggest challenge was communication.
RH: Did that improve over the deployment or was that a constant?
SM: It improved over time and if you want to go years ahead, by the time I deployed to Afghanistan we had that act down. When I was in Iraq in 2003 this was all new business for all of us. We worked out a lot of kinks and I think you guys who followed up later probably got a much better example of medical planning and medical CASEVAC and you had better hospitals. When we were there everything was mobile. We were always on the run. So it did improve, I’m sure, a lot even by the time you were there. When I redeployed to Afghanistan to 2007 the first time, it was really a lot better organized so it was a learning experience.
RH: What do you remember most about the sailors that you served with in Iraq?
SM: The Corpsmen?
RH: Yes. The Corpsmen and the doctors.
SM: The doctors are doctors no matter where you go. They were very professional. We had a few guys that got a little nervous. I’m kind of biased because I am a physician so we’re kind of a weird group. [laughs] We have all kinds of people. I have to say that their performance professionally was impeccable.
But I’ll give the greatest kudos to the Corpsmen, the guys and the girls that were on the ground. My biggest compliment was from a few of them when we came back to Camp Pendleton and they said they would serve with me anytime, anywhere. They said, “thanks for the leadership.” But when they are properly led and trained and made to feel good about themselves, they were amazing. They never complained. I know they had their concerns but I was so impressed and still am today about how you can take a twenty-one year-old Corpsman, a girl or guy, train them and if the Navy was ever concerned about their ability to produce a professional, they should have seen their medical personnel in action. They just worked without stopping, they did what they were told and they were professionals to the very end. So I can’t compliment the Navy enlisted Medical Corps and their leadership any more than I have the words for.
RH: Thank you! What do you remember most about the Marines that you served with in Iraq?
SM: There were thirty-four Marines assigned to my company and I was very impressed with them because they made sure we had everything we needed to do a great job. They never faltered.
Most of the Marines I saw were the ones who came in injured. I wrote an article for Navy Medicine, I think it was published in February or March of 2004, but I mentioned that the Marines were coming in after hitting land mines. They would run out and get their legs all peppered full of shrapnel. They would lay there and of course they had a little bit of morphine on board but they never screamed, they never yelled. Most of them were concerned about other Marines that they thought were involved. They were concerned about everything but themselves.
One of them I remember was bleeding and as we took him to the OR – he looked like he was only about eighteen years old – he looked at the nurse and looked down and saw a bunch of blood on the sand below his cot and he said, “I’m sorry about the mess.” You know? That was about the only time I choked up. He couldn’t have been more than eighteen and he said, “my mom always told me to clean up my messes.” There he was bleeding out of his lower legs from fragment injuries from a bomb and he was concerned about leaving a mess behind. So that pretty much synopsizes what I saw with the Marines. They were fearless. Even when they were injured they were concerned about other Marines and their Corpsmen.
RH: OK. What was the most challenging period of the deployment, the beginning, the middle or the end?
SM: Probably the biggest one was toward the end. When you were busy, time was flying by and then when I moved up to the group surgeon level and acting group surgeon, I was doing less medical stuff and more leadership stuff. I never knew what was going to happen next. I said, “if Alpha gets shut down and moved up into Baghdad, I want to be with them.” So for me personally, I was afraid I was going to be sitting behind a desk in LSA Coyote while the rest of Alpha moved. The Reserves came in later in the game around May or June and pretty much picked up a lot of what we were doing. That was the biggest challenge for me, to still stay busy and still keep doing what we did so well. But it all worked out.
I didn’t have any particular real big challenges personally. I just like being a leader and I liked being a surgeon so I could make sure that decisions being made about bleeding Marines were done by a surgeon and not a burned out dermatologist going through a bad divorce. You needed the best quality of decision making and usually if I sat down with a Marine general or a Marine colonel and had to explain something to him, I just explained it to him about taking care of bleeding Marines and that got their attention. As long as you explained it to them clearly and it made sense and didn’t lay the doctor verbal fluff on them, they were really good about supporting my decisions. That could have been a big challenge but it never was. It just seemed like I got along with the Marine leadership really well because I had spent eleven years with the Marine battalion at Regiment when I was in the Reserves so I kind of knew Marine-speak, Marine brains and Marine concerns.
RH: What was the most challenging non-combat or non-operational aspect of deploying?
SM: About my personal deployment or the whole event?
RH: I’d say your personal deployment.
SM: Most of it was communication, not knowing what you were going to do. We trained up and we were all ready to go and we never knew when we were leaving. So everybody was getting psyched up and motivated and we’re down at Camp Pendleton raring to go and no one knew. Even the people that should have known didn’t know when they were going to pull the plug and send us to March Air Base and fly us to Kuwait. So I think the big challenge was the communication and just not knowing what was coming next. Were we going to be standing down when they decided not to do OIF? There were rumors going around and of course, being an O6 and the head clinical guy, everybody was asking me. I really felt the urge to tell them things but I said, “I can’t tell you stuff I can’t confirm.” I think that was the biggest challenge we faced non-combat. It was just the gouge going out, the scuttlebutt, who said what, you know? There’s not much you can do about it. You’ve just got to say, “I’ll tell you when I know something for sure.” In the end they were thankful for that. Towards the end they said, “you always gave us the right scoop and when you didn’t know something, you told us.”
RH: Did you have any transformative or significant events that informed your deployment aside from the ones that you already told me about?
SM: What do you mean by informed? I’m sorry.
RH: Any transformative or significant events. Anything else that really sticks out in your mind that you haven’t told me about yet?
SM: Oh I’m sorry. Yes. The first day I saw my first Marine dead. It was a Marine officer who had been shot through the liver in the abdomen. I think he was outside Nasiriyah. I think he came in within the first hour. I went into the ambulance and looked him over. He was a young, good looking guy, a Marine Lieutenant, and I had spoken to a few of his Corpsmen that had treated him in the field. He talked for quite a while, he didn’t die right away. All he kept saying was, “I can’t believe I got shot.” He was a former enlisted Marine and went to the Citadel. Somebody wrote a book about him. The book is called Shane Comes Home. I forgot who wrote it. I may or may not still have the book but he was the first Marine officer to die in OIF.
I made the mistake of getting to hear too much personal stuff that he said and even today I still think about that. In fact, when I went through some of the pictures that I sent you, I ran across a few of the photos that I had taken which I never did again. I did it once and realized that it’s nothing I want to remember that much. Here it is all these twelve or thirteen years later and I still think about this particular officer.
RH: Before we move on to coming home from that deployment, is there anything else that I left out that you would like to address?
SM: Once again, I was fifty-two years old when I did all this but it was an honor to do what I did even though I had never really, other than understanding Marines, no one had ever trained surgeons to go to combat. We just kind of do what we’d been trained to do in training. Overall, the experience as far as leadership goes and getting such an inspiring and lifelong appreciation for young sailors, young Marines, I came home saying, “if I ever hear anybody talk about ‘they don’t make ‘em like they used to,’ I’m going to set them straight.” I just spent six months with eighteen and nineteen year-olds who were doing things that I know fifty year-olds couldn’t do. And they did it well, they did it honorably. None of them were forced to be there. They all signed up. I came home with such an appreciation for sailors and Marines and just young Americans who were patriotic and loved their country. I saw them lose their limbs, lose their arms and die. I saw enough of that. So I came home with a lifelong appreciation for what young, patriotic Americans will do regardless of all the hubbub you see on TV and reality TV. I’ve never had a problem knowing that Americans will always be strong when they produce people like that.
RH: Good to go. Can you talk a little bit about your immediate post-deployment experiences after this deployment?
SM: I came home in June of ’03. In July I went to Okinawa and I was the MEF surgeon there for the Third Marine Expeditionary Force. It was a lot of leadership stuff but luckily I had a chance to take a lot of what I just learned in OIF 1 and help build a good medical model for deployment should we have to go to Korea. So once again I found myself in a neat position to take all this stuff I learned and make sure we’re going in the right direction with medical readiness and medical capabilities and skill sets.
I stayed there for three years. Our focus obviously was Korea and the Korean peninsula. Once again if something did light up I think we were more than ready to handle it and I was glad to be able to use my experience. And we also had the tsunami. That was non-combat but we were the head agency on the tsunami relief operations so that was a good experience. But the next deployment came when I left the MEF in Okinawa. They just stood up Marine Special Operations and I was slated in to be the command surgeon to build up the medical side of MARSOC.
RH: Perfect. Let’s go ahead and let’s jump into that deployment. What were the dates of that deployment?
SM: MARSOC? I came there in July of 2006 and I left in April 2009 when I went to Afghanistan again. During my time in my time in MARSOC I deployed to Uruzgan province in Afghanistan with a special operations forward surgical team at a place called Fire Base Ripley.
RH: What were the dates of that specific deployment?
SM: That was from, I think, late August of 2007 to November.
RH: November. OK. So that was just two months? Very brief.
SM: Yes. Basically, I wanted to get situational awareness of what MARSOC would need if we moved our own medical platforms into country so I was with the Third and the Seventh Army Special Forces Group and a multi-service forward surgical team. From there I not only did surgery but I also saw the layout and was developing a model and an idea for MARSOC should we go ahead and want to invest in that. So I was there for that time in Uruzgan province.
It was an eye opener. The Australian Special Forces were down the road. The Dutch were there. It was all the Special Forces flavor to it but I was there for basically getting situational awareness and trying to devise a model by which we would or would not do should we go that direction.
RH: From what you are allowed to say, is it different working with Special Forces than with standard Marine Corps units and, if so, how?
SM: It’s immensely different. One is your footprint is a lot smaller. The missions are a lot different. The technology, on one end, is immensely more sophisticated because it is built for the environment by which Special Operations operate. The options are oftentimes a lot more limited due to the location, the mission and what’s going on. I was impressed with the immense degree of superior medical and surgical technology to save the lives of special operators. Those of us that were on the medical side, we were highly specialized surgeons and medical folks but, we ourselves, we were relying basically on what we knew. But the support and the missions and the smaller footprint I think was immensely different than you would find in a regular ground combat situation.
RH: What were some of the advantages that that gave you as a surgeon, if there were any?
SM: Basically, as a vascular surgeon and a general surgeon I had been trained in trauma so I know what kills people. I know the processes, the pathophysiology, the injuries and the treatment that you need to prevent death – hemorrhage mostly, of course. So the surgical processes and the surgical response and treatment is immensely different than you would find in a trauma center at home because you don’t have all those facilities. So the science and the technology and the processes you use in Special Operations are really built around the environment you’re working. But as a surgeon I understood it and basically you know what allows people to die. You know what processes are going to occur after various injuries. So as a surgeon I think you’re very valuable because you understand all that. So for me it was beneficial. I learned a lot myself too. I mean, you never quit learning.
RH: What are some of the notable events that occurred during that deployment?
SM: Our location was very austere and – between the various Special Operations missions, none of which I took part in myself as far as going outside the wire – they were very busy. They were very professional. The enemy was nearby so the missions were plentiful, what we call a “target-rich environment.” And I was just impressed with what was going on. We saw injuries coming in. A lot of them were civilians that were involved in end of Ramadan explosions. There was a lot of bad blood out there so we saw a lot of civilian casualties as well.
But I was impressed mostly with how much we could do in a very low footprint environment. Basically, in a building of opportunity. I think that’s the one common theme you learn in Special Operations, how much you can get done with the right thinking and the right technology that you will not have if you’re used to working in a big medical center. I was amazed at how much we could get done and how many lives and limbs we could save just by thinking differently and thinking clearly and using some of the superior technology that’s available.
RH: Before we finish this deployment and move onto your second deployment to Afghanistan, is there anything else you would like to address?
SM: No. Just once again, I was dealing with a whole different population in Special Operations but my respect and my immense admiration for their professionalism and their ability to fight and to think and to plan operations and carry them out really impressed me. I was honored to be around them and contribute what little I did. I really think I learned more than I gave back but we did some research and we pushed a lot of concepts right up to reality. None of which I can repeat but we did things that would make other surgeons swallow their tongues if they saw what we were doing. But it actually worked. So I think a lot of what civilian trauma and civilian medical care has today is always going to be directly related to what the US military – and especially Special Operations medicine – has contributed to the overall library of surgical care of the acutely injured.
RH: Let’s go ahead and move onto your next deployment. What were the dates of the deployment?
SM: I was with MARSOC as their command surgeon and around January of 2009 the decision was made to send a task force of Marines to Helmand province. So in January of 2009 the head of the Second Marine Expeditionary Force, my old boss from MARSOC, asked me if I would want to be the command surgeon for the Second MEB – Marine Expeditionary Brigade. I think, ultimately, the TO was a little over 10,000 people.
So I took it and we rapidly put together a force and a plan and in April of 2009 we flew to Helmand province which is down south above the Pakistani border. It had really never seen uniformed foreign soldiers other than Special Operations. We had several missions. One was to support the upcoming elections and to train up their own police force and basically give the people there more confidence in governance. And also to interrupt the heroin trade. That was heroin central and I think, last I heard, ninety percent of Europe’s heroin came from Helmand province because it’s right along the Helmand River.
RH: What were some of your initial impression of Afghanistan when you arrived?
SM: The area we were in was pretty desolate. Unless you were along the Helmand River which was like the Nile, you see a lot of greenery around the Helmand River Valley, but shy of that it looked like the surface of the moon. It was some hills, some mountains but largely it was desert. It looked like desert from the sky. It was dusty and hot and there wasn’t a lot going on as far as big cities. Along the river is where you found the cities but, shy of that, once you got away it was all moon dust, which is like baby powder.
RH: Did you interact with the Afghans at all and, if so, what were those interactions like?
SM: Actually, I did. Not to a huge degree. I operated on several Afghans so I got to know their families. They’d come in in a group and look after their family. I found them to be very very kind, friendly people and they actually have a good sense of humor once they get comfortable with you. I interacted a lot with Afghan military because part of our mission was to work with them and form alliances. They were mostly all officers but I found the military guys were very friendly, very respectful and just nice guys. The civilians were even more nice if you were involved with the medical care of one of their family members.
RH: Are there any Afghans in particular that stick out?
SM: Well these were all Pashtuns, from the Pashtun tribe. I got to know the head intelligence officer of this battalion that was in a camp next to ours, next to Camp Leatherneck. They had their own camp – I forget the name now. His nickname was “The Strangler.” I should have sent you a copy of that picture. He was a huge guy with wrists about the size of our thighs and he got the name The Strangler because back when they were fighting the Russians years back, he used to grab them and just crush ‘em. He was about the size of a huge wrestler. Of course he’s a pretty intimidating guy. I got to know him and he was a heck of a nice guy. He was a poet and we became good friends. We used to share dinner together a lot in his quarters. He was a good cook. So I’ve met a lot of them including the General but this guy, we called him The Strangler. [laughs]
But I was impressed with the civilians, the few that I met, that were family members. They were very nice, very humble and they really appreciated the care. And I operated on several Afghan soldiers with terrible vascular injuries. They were very thankful. They’re good people with a good sense of humor but it’s kind of a weird culture. I walked away with kind of mixed feelings about it all. The people I met themselves were very nice.
RH: What was the surgical unit itself like that you were working with in Afghanistan?
SM: It was interesting for me because I was on the General’s staff of the Second Marine Expeditionary Brigade, 2 MEB. So I didn’t have any direct medical responsibilities as far as being on his staff and making decisions and helping with the planning and the medical intelligence of our operations. Right next door was a rather large NATO hospital called Camp Bastion. It was a much more upscale hospital – upscale in a sense that they had a lot of sophisticated stuff and big surgery units.
So I was a surgeon over there as well and when they had complicated vascular injuries, I would go over there and operate. But I also went every morning to see the Marines that would come in and were injured or got operated on. I would make rounds on them in the morning just so I could get accurate information to General Nicholson, our CG. So I had a good relationship there and split the year contributing when they needed me.
RH: What were some of the notable events that occurred during your deployment?
SM: The earliest thing I recall one day was we’d been there about a month and we were having breakfast about 5:30 in the morning or 6:00 and all of a sudden I saw the Hunt’s tomato bottle fly off the table with everything else. A bomb had just been detonated, probably a half a mile away, amongst a bunch of daily drivers that used to collect right outside the gate. They would sit around waiting for their assignments to drive these big trucks and apparently a Taliban had snuck in there and self-detonated. It blew everybody all over the place. I went over to Bastion hospital and most of the guys sitting around the camp fire had no heads. We had one Marine who had a terrific soft tissue injury of the leg and I walked in the operating room when they were cleaning it out and they found a wristwatch in his leg. It belonged to one of the drivers. It had been blown into his leg off the other guy’s body. That was my “welcome to Afghanistan and terrorism.”
We had several big operations. We tended to get a lot of casualties as we spread out into more Forward Operating Bases with the Marines. They had more operations and we started developing more peripheral surgical units that could handle certain things far away from the mothership.
RH: Did you ever travel out to those Forward Operating Bases?
SM: Yes. That was part of my job. My feeling was it was the same as it was in Iraq. I’m no good unless I’m out there. I went as far north as Now Zad. I was up there quite a bit at Fire Base Caferetta. Then we developed a surgical platform down in a place called Fire Base Dwyer which actually grew into a much bigger base as time went on after I left. So I travelled around quite a bit. I got familiar with everything going on. You’re next to worthless if you’re sitting behind a desk taking reports all day. I’m kind of a hands-on guy so if I happened to be someplace when something came in and they needed me, I would scrub right in and do it. But largely you’re just not much of a leader unless you’re out there talking to everybody from the Third Class all the way up to the Commander. You’ve just got know what’s going on so when you give the General the gouge at the brief, he’s getting the right stuff, he’s not getting something that you’re guessing on. That’s just my personality in general anyway.
RH: OK. For this deployment what was the most challenging period, the beginning, the middle or the end?
SM: I’d have to say somewhere in the middle. We had done several major operations and it’s probably the bureaucracy. I’m not going to say anything critical of anybody above us but a lot of the leadership in Kandahar and even up higher with the other services, they didn’t quite understand Marines. That was probably the one chronic issue I had to deal with is – since Marines weren’t there in big numbers – no one really understood Marines. The Army did not understand how Marines operate. There were some discussions over who really owns the area of operations and what they didn’t understand was a one star Marine General owns his AOR and nobody else has a whole lot to say about it. [laughs] It was just being with the Marines and having other branches not completely understand how Marines do business.
Luckily, I was fortunate to know everybody who was in all the other organizational elements and over time I think I made an impression on them by saying, “you guys have got to understand Marines.” It wasn’t just me either. I think a lot of the people on the Marine staff felt the same, feeling that maybe the big guys up there don’t understand Marines and how we do business. We kick ass and take names. We form our own intelligence, our own missions. I think they had some of the same communication and command and control issues that I had. But it worked out OK. Everybody was good about it. It’s just that no one understood how Marines really think, how they operate. Once they did I think everyone was alright. So from a leadership standpoint, I think that was one of my biggest challenges – to interact between multiple services and organizational levels and explain that to them. When they didn’t get it, I would have to explain it to them anyway. It took being a bit of a politician and a diplomat to do my job but I thought I did it usually well.
RH: What were some of the differences between working in Iraq and working in Afghanistan?
SM: There were several similarities but probably more differences. One is the medical evacuation. The CASEVAC was a lot more robust, a lot more mature and a lot better organized. I think a lot more soldiers, Marines and sailors had their lives saved because we had a much better organized and responsive ability to rapidly mobilize the Army dust off, the US Air Force Pedro CASEVAC which had a medical platform that would get out to the soldier as quick as possible. I mean, you had to hold these guys on a leash. They wanted out there and to get the injured and get them back to a major facility like Bastion where there’s five hundred units of blood, six surgeons, nineteen other guys.
I think in Iraq we didn’t have that robust, mature battlespace to have those available. By the time I got to Afghanistan we had a very mature, robust CASEVAC system that worked beautifully. We got the right Marine with the right injury to the right level of care in the right amount of time. That was probably one of my biggest missions in that area of medical care – it was to make sure that the process was working the best it could. And when it wasn’t, I went through my General and made changes at the risk of future promotions and politics and everything else. So for me by this time, as a sixty-two year-old surgeon dealing with this stuff, I found it very challenging. It was very gratifying to see the process work as well as it did. Not that there wasn’t room for improvement but I think everything I had done before that was really starting to pay off. So there was a big difference.
In Afghanistan we were working with a lot of other services and, once again, the command and control was a little bit better defined but it didn’t make it work any better. In OIF, the First Marine Expeditionary Force just kicked ass, took names and rolled forward and took down Baghdad but it was a lot more levels of clearance, levels of diplomacy and levels of command confusion at times but once again that didn’t bother me much because I wasn’t involved in it but I just know from sitting in staff meetings that it was a different environment entirely. But I think everyone did well.
RH: Before we move on to coming home from this deployment, are there any other notable events that occurred during the deployment or anything else that I left out?
SM: Right before we went home we did the assault on Marjah. We had been planning that. That was a major heroin processing city, probably fifteen or twenty miles away from where we were at. It was owned by the Taliban and I think that was a major accomplishment because on February 13th, we had planned the assault on Marjah to take this town back. And we did it. It was a fierce fight. That was our last big major offensive before we started doing turnover with our replacing units. By then it had been a year. The joke was, “it was only twelve months but it sure seemed like a whole year.” [RH laughs] I think we were all ready to go home.
RH: Marjah was February 2010, correct?
SM: Correct. We just had our five year reunion up at the Marine Corps museum a couple of months ago.
RH: Very cool. Can you talk about your immediate post-deployment experiences coming home from that deployment?
SM: Well, on the personal side, I had developed a little bit of a lump in my neck the last couple of months I was there. Of course I’m sixty-two years old and they’re all interested in the twenty-one year-olds so there’s no Third Class calling the Captain saying, “you better go get checked by the doctor.” So I had to do it myself and I found out it was cancer. I had cancer of the thyroid. My wife was doing the victory lap now that I was home and I had to stop her midway and say, “honey, we got some more things going on here. [laughs] I’ve got cancer of the neck.” I went to Duke University and they did the surgery and cleaned everything out and it was no bad findings.
RH: Good. Excellent.
SM: Luckily no complications. I’ve done that operation so I was more scared about a complication than I was the surgery. Then I went through radiation therapy for the next three months and they reassigned me to the hospital and I went back to being just a cutter again. It was nice.
RH: Did you retire after that deployment?
SM: No. I stayed on another two years. First of all, I wanted to make sure I was completely clear of the cancer so I stayed on. And like I said, I went back to being a clinician, seeing patients and having no particular, real big responsibilities other than just being a good doc. I stayed on for another two years and then decided sixty-four was a good time to retire so I put in my papers and retired December 1st, 2012.
RH: Let me ask you this, what is the best and worst part about retirement?
SM: I’ll tell you, this is my personal thing, no one tells you how much fun it’s going to be. They put you through a three day process. You can’t retire unless you go through Transitional Assistance Program. And basically it’s a bunch of people telling you what you earned, which you didn’t know you earned, which is always good to know. And then they have all kinds of guys up there telling you how depressed you’re going to be and how you’re going to reach for your uniform every other day and you’re going to hang around the base drinking coffee. I’ve been happy. [laughs] Of course, I retired at sixty-four, not fifty-four. I’ve enjoyed just being home with my wife a lot more, having a lot of free time, doing things that I kind of put off for a long time. I guess thirty years is thirty years. I really enjoyed every day of the military. In fact, I’m afraid they’re going to send me a bill when they find out how much fun I had for thirty years. [RH laughs] Nobody should get a retirement check having this much fun. [laughs]
So I’ve had no problems with retirement. Of course the cancer thing was a bit of a scare. I did come down with PTSD though. That had nothing to do with retiring as much as I just, I still have some alarming symptoms. I have to say, the military did a good job. I was in therapy for two years and they took care of some issues that I had. They weren’t disabling as much as they were troubling and they affected my quality of life. And right in the middle of it my older son committed suicide so I’ve had some challenges personally but it certainly had nothing to do with the military. But I enjoy retirement. I haven’t had a bored day yet. I like looking back at the Navy and I enjoyed my career. I go out to the base for this or that sometimes. It was just great. It was just wonderful. My journey might be different than others and I enjoyed every day of it but I’m surprised by how little I miss it.
RH: Do you still communicate with anyone from your units?
SM: Yes. We have kind of a hotline, mostly from the MEB, for the brigade. We developed a good communication line and like I said we all went up to the Marine Corps museum up in Quantico for our five year Marjah reunion. We have kind of a den mother. I don’t know where she came from but she just keeps everyone informed about everybody and we send her pictures here and there. So we do stay in contact. I still have guys that I kind of looked after when I was on the staff at the MEB still calling me for medical advice. I still see a three star General. He was my boss at MARSOC and he was also the 2 MEF CG. We stay in contact. It’s neat. It’s a nice balance of your past and the present.
RH: I have some leadership questions for you. What are some of the leadership challenges you faced while you were in?
SM: I’m kind of a rogue kind of guy. I know policies. I read them but I don’t wake up in the morning spouting them and I think that’s why the Marines like me more than most of the Navy guys. At least in all of my outbrief interviews they said, “we really appreciate you’re not the typical doc who wants to talk doc stuff to us.” I did what I knew. I made decisions based on what I knew was right and I didn’t necessarily fall into line with what the policy was. That doesn’t work well on the blue side but on the Marine side I never had one general when I left that didn’t thank me for doing the job that I did. A lot of it just had to do with doing what I thought was right and just letting everybody know in BUMED that I had no intention of ever being an Admiral so don’t hold that over my head. [laughs] Affectionately, I basically said, “have you ever met anyone who doesn’t give a shit? Well, that’s me.” And I think a lot of guys really appreciated that because they could talk candidly with me.
Anyways, that was probably my biggest deal. On one end I’m a Navy Captain, I know policy, but I just can’t bring myself to do something stupid because of policy. That’s why I spent seventeen out of thirty years on the Marine staff. They appreciated that a lot more.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Are there any people that helped to shape your leadership style?
SM: In a way, no. I guess they shaped it in a negative way. I saw guys going down the toilet trying to stay with policy and trying to be the all-knowing. I said, “this guy’s a doctor and he’s talking like he never went to medical school because he’s afraid of getting somebody angry at BUMED.” They just seemed to like these policies more than they liked taking care of patients or doing the right thing. So either way, a lot of people affected me in a negative way. I said, “I don’t want to do it that way.”
There were a few guys I met along the way. One guy in Oakland back in the late eighties, he was an ear, nose and throat surgeon and I admired him because he said, “I just do what’s right for the patient. I try to do what’s right for the Navy,” but he said that if someone doesn’t like him, basically to hell with ‘em. He said, “there will always be somebody appreciating what you do if it’s the right thing.” He’s long gone but he’s probably the one guy that I got my attitude from. It’s kind of my personality anyway. I never considered myself a career Navy officer even though I made a career out of it. I always considered myself a vascular surgeon and taking care of bleeding Marines is my job. Everything else is secondary.
RH: Alright. Good to go. We’re going to move on to Iraq’s current state. How do you feel about the rise of ISIS and the current direction that Iraq is taking?
SM: It’s a heartbreaker. It’s a real heartbreaker to see the way policy and strategy, if there is a strategy, I don’t know what it is. And if you don’t know what the strategy is, you can’t marry up an adequate policy to make it happen. That’s where I think it’s very disappointing, obviously for the lives lost and all the injured from what we took. I just think some very basic principles of warfare and peace were overlooked when developing whatever this strategy is. We don’t really know. You can’t divorce strategy from policy and this is an exact example. Neither one of them married up but an animal called politics got in the middle and it’s all messed up.
RH: How do you feel about the recent ending of – it’s not really over – but the official ending of US combat operations in Afghanistan and the path that Afghanistan is taking?
SM: Well, our purpose was to make them self-sufficient and to give them a credible military force, the Afghan National Army, and to also develop a police force that the people there could trust. Before we got there, the police were worse than the Taliban. That’s how we lost Marjah. The people of Marjah asked the Taliban to come in and get rid of the police because the police were worse than anybody so I think we developed a professional police force. We’ve trained the army. They are fighters. Those guys are tough. They’re not wimps at all. These guys have been fighting for years over anything – weddings, wars, whatever it might be. So I think our mission, at least when I was there, was to do all that. But you can’t walk away and leave a vacuum. I think that they should learn from Iraq that you need to leave behind people that just positively know more than the Afghans could ever know about logistics, training, monitoring intelligence, acting on intelligence – the stuff we do really well. And our Special Forces, the Army produces these guys by the bucket load. So I hope we don’t leave a vacuum behind because those guys are tough and they’re motivated. These guys, the Afghan Army, are tough guys.
RH: I’m going to move onto a couple of spiritual questions. Has deploying changed your perception of life and death and, if so, how?
SM: Well, having trained in a trauma center for six years I got used to seeing dead young people. But I’ll have to tell you, I trained in Los Angeles and most of the dead young people were gang bangers and what we call bad guys. Especially when you’re younger and you’re training and you’re seeing all that stuff in large volumes, you develop a bit of a crusty nature. But most of them were gang bangers. What happened to me in Iraq and all of the last twelve years is I was seeing dead and severely injured good guys. Good young people. Of course when you’ve got kids it’s even worse.
So I went through a real metamorphosis and some real tortured self-analysis, “how do I handle this?,” seeing terrible injuries and death of good kids. Kids that were working at Wal Mart two years ago that are now Marines, a Lance Corporal, and they come in with a four inch hole through their back. So it affected me a lot and I think it had a lot to do with my eventual development of PTSD. They said it was cumulative over years but that was one of the things that came out and that’s one of the avenues that they pursued during my two years of therapy which, I have to say, was excellent. I can’t give them enough kudos for the time they took with an old guy like me. [laughs]
RH: Has deploying affected you spiritually and, if so, how?
SM: Well I tell you, my deployments every one of them – from the aircraft carrier to the one where I came home from task force Leatherneck – I think it’s been one of the most beneficial things in my life. It allowed me to feel I gave back everything I ever learned, everything I was ever given as far as talent, skills and knowledge to the right people at the right time when my country wanted it and needed it the most. So regardless of the PTSD or other things, that’s kind of way on the sideline.
I was never so proud and glad to have been given a chance at the best time of my professional career to give back and to bring to the forefront everything I ever learned, all the way from medical school all the way up until now. For me it’s been a big plus. It’s been something, if I never did anything else right in my life, this is something I could really feel good and proud about. I’ve got one son who’s a Navy officer and I think I had a lot to do with him going in the Navy. He was just a thirteen or fourteen year-old when this all started in Iraq but he’s got seven years on deck now but I think watching his dad had a big impact. But what I did, when I did, and how many times I did it was probably one of the best things I can think of other than marrying my wife and trying to be a good dad.
RH: What are some of the happiest memories you have either of deploying or of the entire time you served?
SM: I think just getting to know people. When you’re out of the hospital and you’re out of garrison and you’re deployed you’ve got a lot of time to get to know people really well. Everything from the Third Class Petty Officer at two in the morning and you’re having a cigar out on the roof of a small forward deployed surgical unit, getting to know a twenty-one year-old kid smoking a cigar and hearing his story and knowing that, when I was twenty-one, I wouldn’t have dreamed of sitting there talking to some fifty-odd or sixty-odd year-old surgeon. [laughs] All I know is when I did do that stuff on occasion, when I was younger I had a kind dermatologist who talked to me for three hours on a plane flight from Japan to Hawaii. So it’s really been a blessing to be around and have the time to spend with all kinds of younger folks deployed somewhere smoking a cigar in the Afghan night at two in the morning and I just know that, if they’re anything like me, forty years from now they’re going to still remember it. It was so gratifying to be around people and to get to know them very close because you’re far away from home and you’ve got time to do it.
RH: Quick aside, you weren’t in Vietnam by any chance, were you?
SM: No. Actually, I wasn’t in Vietnam. I joined the California Air National Guard during the Vietnam era when I was in college. I stayed in there during college for about three years and left when I went to medical school. I was actually an enlisted Air Force guy but it was Air Guard and it was a good way to make sixty-five bucks a month and stay out of the draft.
RH: What, if anything, do you miss about the military?
SM: I miss the pride. I was one of those guys that always wore the uniform. If you go to Navy hospitals now, everyone is wearing scrubs and when they get off duty they put on a pair of flip flops and shorts and a Mickey Mouse t-shirt and some funny sunglasses. I was one of those guys that went to work in my khakis and came home in my khakis or whatever uniform I wanted to wear so I miss wearing the uniform. I miss having younger doctors, younger anybodys coming into my office wanting advice. I do miss that. Not enough to put it on tomorrow and go back but I suspect if they ask me to and there was a good enough reason, I could do it. But I miss putting on that uniform and just feeling proud of who I am and what I do and whatever part I play in promoting the professionalism of Navy medicine. If I wasn’t I’ll feel bad no one told me but I always thought I did.
RH: Good to go. Now most important question of the entire interview, what was the best MRE?
SM: I’ll tell you, it was the vegetarian because that was the one that always had the m&m’s in it. If you ate the other crap you got Skittles and I didn’t like Skittles so the best MRE was vegetarian. [laughs]
RH: What was the best chow hall stateside, the best chow hall in Iraq and the best chow hall in Afghanistan?
SM: The best chow hall stateside I’d have to say was Balboa because it was a big, big medical center. You had all the peripheral Taco Bell, McDonald’s, but the chow hall itself was really good with a killer salad bar so it’d be Naval Medical Center San Diego. In Iraq, I’ll tell you, it was the fifty-fourth CSH in the Army combat surgical hospital, in Kuwait City. Of course, we were way out, three hours away from the border so we were eating MREs and weird sausages cooked by weird Pakistanis. [RH laughs] So when we would make a run into Kuwait City with a patient, the key was to get into that CSH and I think it was the fifty-fourth CSH, they had killer food. That was like a real holiday. The next question was Afghanistan?
SM: I would have to say Kandahar. They had four major DFACs – Dining facilities – and they all had a different flavor to them. You had all kinds of international troops there so, by far, the best DFACs were up in Kandahar.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Do you have any funny stories from deployment?
SM: Funny stories? Gosh. We did a lot of laughing I’m just trying to think of an event. I guess I’d have to look at Afghanistan to find one. Gosh, I can’t think of anything too funny. I mean, it wasn’t real funny to anybody but me but I was flying from Now Zad down to Bastion about three in the afternoon and all of a sudden the guys – the crew working the .50 cals – just started unloading on some sort of Toyota down below. I just heard they saw a white pickup and I guess they weren’t taking any chances because they were just pouring tons of lead out. Of course, you’re strapped in there. I’m looking across at another guy and you kind of have that helpless feeling like, gosh, I’m sixty-two years old and sitting up a thousand feet in the air watching two guys work machine guns and my biggest fear was getting a bullet up on the seat so I’d end up getting a colostomy bag or some sort of colon injury.
All of a sudden I just started whistling a song I learned when I was about six years old. It was a TV clown named Chucko and he had a birthday song. Why, at the age of sixty-two and for the first time in fifty-five years, I started humming? Of course there’s so much noise in the plane, no one could hear me. I started cracking up. I said, “why in the world would a guy my age start singing Chucko the birthday song while he’s getting shot at?” [RH laughs] And it was the weirdest collection of events. I told my wife about it the other day and she didn’t think it was very funny. She didn’t like bullets going up.
As far as having any interaction with anybody, I can’t think of any right now. All I know is we never missed a chance to laugh about something. But why I was singing the Chucko birthday song while they were firing .50 cals down at a truck that was shooting 25 mms up at us, I will never know. [RH laughs] Only a psychiatrist can figure that one out. [laughs] It was one of those afternoon clown shows you watch when you’re about seven years old. I don’t know if that’s funny to anybody else but I still kind of chuckle when I find myself whistling the Chucko birthday song.
RH: Good to go. Alright. We’re almost done. Just a couple more questions. If you could communicate something to young doctors, Corpsmen and Marines who will be fighting the wars of the future, what would it be?
SM: It would be, number one, never forget that you were in the finest military or the finest Navy there ever was and whatever your age is now, you’re going to be thinking about this the rest of your life. This is going to be a major transforming event for you. Number two is never miss a chance to take on leadership. Don’t hide behind the lab machine or behind the CBC machine or the x-ray machine and just do what people are asking you. Do that and never miss a chance to take on leadership because it’s going to pay off years and years in advance. You’re going to benefit from that attitude of taking responsibility and taking leadership. It’s more than just figuring out a CBC or taking an x-ray. You’re growing as a person. Number three, stay away from slags and mouth-breathers that are in there just doing the bare minimum. You don’t want to catch what they’ve got. Never miss a chance to deploy and stay away from people who have bad attitudes. And just remember when it’s all said and done – whether you stay in four years or whether you stay in forty – it’s been said that when you look back on your life at forty, fifty, seventy years old wondering what you’ve done in your life, you can always say, “I served in the United States Navy.” That’s about as simple as I can make it.
RH: Alright. Good to go. Is there anything that I left out that you would like to address?
SM: Gosh. No. Your questions have been very probing and I’ve tried to give you the best answers I can.
RH: Well thank you!
SM: I didn’t prep for this because I do better when you ask questions and just give me a few seconds to recall things. But I hope what I said was clear and somewhat continuous as far as the theme goes. I hope that throughout all this you can pull whatever’s meaningful and pass it on to somebody else when you move into print.
RH: Alright. My last question is, what specific accomplishment are you most proud of during your service?
SM: I was awarded the Bronze Star for my service in Iraq by the Marine Corps. While I’ve gotten other awards of a higher nature since, having the Marines recognize a fifty-two year-old vascular surgeon who just left private practice and to be called up in front of five hundred Marines and to be awarded the Bronze Star a year later not only surprised me but, I have to admit, to be recognized by the Navy surgeons and recognized by the Marine Corps I still say to this day was probably one of my most proud moments.
RH: Alright! Anything else?