Remembrance ceremony honors fallen military medics
March 12, 2009
ARLINGTON, Va., March 11, 2009 - Beneath the rows of simple white headstones evenly spaced beneath a dull and cloudy mid-March sky, the stories of those who rest at Arlington National Cemetery here today are anything but ordinary.
Some were killed by heavy machine-gun fire. Others were showered with rockets or mortars. And many were surprised by the explosion of an unexpected roadside bomb. But for the more than 210 military medics, corpsmen, doctors and nurses who lost their lives in Iraq and Afghanistan since 9/11, they were killed trying to save others, the Defense Department's top medical official said.
"Their motto is 'Good medicine, bad places,'" Dr. S. Ward Casscells, assistant defense secretary for health affairs, said during the first remembrance ceremony and wreath laying for military medical personnel killed in the war on terror. "When it mattered most, they answered the call."
More than 100 friends, relatives and military members turned out for what officials plan to make an annual event to honor their loved ones and pay homage to a profession that almost always places its practitioners in difficult situations.
Casscells, who's also an Army Reserve colonel in the medical corps, talked of his fellow medics and corpsmen who never hesitated to treat their enemy. He read excerpts of medics who were so badly wounded they died giving first aid instructions calmly to others, because they couldn't provide the treatment themselves. He talked of others who gave their last minutes of life bandaging Iraqi children after a suicide bomb detonated.
"The decisions these medics and doctors and nurses make on the battlefield are a triumph of the human spirit," he said. "No greater love has any man than this than to lay down his life for his friends -- and they have done exactly that.
Combat medics have one of the highest-risk jobs in the military, he said, noting the intense, rigorous training they undergo to save lives.
"They had training that didn't exist in Vietnam or World War II," he said. "They're training to the level of [emergency medical treatment] and higher because of the tactical combat environment. They're so intensively trained in things that would make a [civilian] doctor pause."
More than 5,000 U.S. military lives have been lost on the battlefields of Iraq and Afghanistan under the backdrop of guerilla warfare and unpredictably sophisticated tactics and military capability. However, thousands more may have been lost if not for medics and corpsmen first responders in the field, he said.
"Their skill and their bravery is the single most important reason why the fatality rate today in Iraq and Afghanistan is 10 percent vs. 23 percent in Vietnam," he said. "This is despite much more powerful munitions, munitions which explode right under your vehicle."
Deborah Mullen, wife of Navy Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, offered her condolences and praised the military medical corps for their devotion to others. She said to remember them not for the life that was lost, but for the lives they saved.
"We come here today to pay tribute to the heroes of our heroes -- the men and women who risked their own lives and limbs to save the lives and limbs of others," Mullen said. "Time cannot describe and words fail to convey the fidelity and ardor in which these brave souls did their duty."