Reflections on Navy Medicine, 1964 to Present

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By Andre Sobocinski
U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery Historian

Fifty years ago, as the nation was embroiled in Cold War, flying high in the Space Race and on the brink of a devastating conflict in Southeast Asia, Navy Medicine was engaged in its mission to “protect the health and promote the physical fitness of Navy and Marine Corps personnel.”[1] In 1964, Navy Medicine was 44,178 members strong[2] and stretched across 25 regular hospitals, 30 station hospitals, 10 research facilities, 10 dental clinics, four preventive medicine units and one hospital ship (USS Haven). Major medical facilities still existed in Chelsea, Oakland and Philadelphia. Overseas, the new Naval Station Hospital Saigon would receive the first American combat casualties directly from the Vietnam War.

The same year U.S. Medicine was launched, 1964, four Navy nurses stationed at Navy Station Hospital in Saigon were wounded in the December terrorist bomb explosion at the American officers’ quarters where they resided.  Despite their injuries, the nurses, shown here, refused treatment until all injured service personnel had been taken care of and became the first American women to be awarded Purple Hearts in the Vietnam War. Photo courtesy of the Navy

The same year U.S. Medicine was launched, 1964, four Navy nurses stationed at Navy Station Hospital in Saigon were wounded in the December terrorist bomb explosion at the American officers’ quarters where they resided. Despite their injuries, the nurses, shown here, refused treatment until all injured service personnel had been taken care of and became the first American women to be awarded Purple Hearts in the Vietnam War. Photo courtesy of the Navy.

The year 1964 saw Navy Medicine testing the boundaries of undersea living with SEALAB I, pioneering the first nonsmoking campaign aboard ships[3] and eradicating the cholera threat in Southeast Asia. In the years to follow, Navy Medicine would build on its brands of research and development, preventive medicine and global health while charting the seas of combat care, mental health, traumatic brain injury and rehabilitation.

Since 1964, Navy medical researchers have served across seven continents overseeing disease surveillance missions, combating infectious illnesses and leading vaccine development. Navy scientists were among the first to identify the virulent H1N1 strain of influenza (2009) and developed norovirus test kits to detect outbreaks (2012). Today, Navy scientists are on the verge of a developing a viable malaria vaccine that could save more than 660,000 lives annually.

For the past fifty years, the Navy and Marine Corps Team has been a leader in the field of Global Health Engagement. Navy medical personnel were among the first to serve in medical and dental civic action programs in Vietnam and later spearheaded global goodwill missions like Project Handclasp, Pacific Partnership and Continuing Promise. Navy Medicine has extended the concept of soft diplomacy. From the Indonesia earthquake/tsunami of 2004 through Operations Unified Response (2010), Tomodachi (2011) and Damayan (2013), Navy medical personnel have consistently rushed to nations devastated by natural disasters.

In Vietnam, Beirut, Somalia, Iraq and Afghanistan, Navy medical personnel have adapted to the conditions of warfare while pioneering new means of saving lives. In the 1960s, Navy researchers developed new techniques for extending the life of whole blood for battlefield use (1966). During the past two decades, Navy orthopedic surgeons have been part of the efforts to improve body armor design, and have saved countless lives in the process. In the past decade, Navy physicians have served as innovators in mobile hospital and surgical care. In the Iraq War, the Navy operated the first-ever fleet hospital in a combat zone[4] and pioneered the Forward Resuscitative Surgical Systems (FRSS). Unlike any previous portable hospital units, the FRSS were lighter faster, and could dispense “damage control surgery” on the frontlines within minutes of being assembled.[5],[6]

Long before Global Contingency Operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, Navy Medicine has striven to stem the tide of mental-health casualties. In the late 1970s, psychiatrists at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth, VA, established the Special Psychiatric Rapid Intervention Team (SPRINT) program. Thirty-six years later, SPRINT teams continue to be deployed following traumatic events like the 2013 Washington Navy Yard shooting to prevent long-term unit and individual psychiatric dysfunction or disability. In 2009, following lessons learned in Iraq and Afghanistan, Navy Medicine tried to alleviate the mental-health crisis affecting Individual Augmentees in theater with the Mobile Care Team (MCT) program. These small, rapidly deployable units of professionals are inserted into a theater of operations to conduct mental health assessments as a form of “actionable psychology.”

Duirng the past 50 years Navy Medicine has not only persevered but has continued to build on its proud history of healthcare delivery and medical science. Whether it’s on land, in the air or above and below the sea, Navy Medicine continues to provide world-class care … anytime, anywhere.

[1] Kenney, Edward. “The Present Challenge to Navy Medicine.” Address to the Norfolk County Medical Society, Norfolk, Va. November 17, 1964.

[2] 3,484 dental technicians, 1,731 dentists, 25,044 hospital corpsmen, 1,212 Medical Service Corps officers, 2,029 nurses, 3,513 physicians, and 7,000 civilians. Medical Statistics, U.S. Navy.  Occurrence of Diseases and Injuries in the United States Navy for the Fiscal Year 1964 (NAVMED P-5027). Washington, DC. Government Printing Office. 1964. Nearly 30 percent of all active duty Navy medical officers serving in 1964 were World War II and/or Korean War veterans. Witnesses to Pearl Harbor and veterans from Midway, Guadalcanal, and the sinking of USS Indianapolis (CA-35) served in leadership positions. Then Surgeon General (Rear Adm. Edward Kenney) was a battalion aid surgeon at Guadalcanal; Nurse Corps Director (Capt. Ruth Erickson) was a first-hand witness and responder in the attack on Pearl Harbor.

Navy Medicine in 1964 was still overwhelmingly male.  Women accounted for just 9 percent of the Medical Department officers and enlisted personnel (3,581 out of 37,178).  Three years after the retirement of Lt. Cdr. Sara Krout, the Navy Dental Corps did not have a single female dentist.  Today, women account for almost 40 percent of the Navy Medical Department, including 20 percent of Navy dentists.

[3] In1964, 125 Navy officers and enlisted men aboard the Polaris submarine USS Nathan Hale (SSBN-623) went three months without cigarettes as part of “Operation No Smoke.”

[4]  Fleet Hospital 3 in Nasiriyah, southern Iraq.

[5]  Cox, Gerald and Sharp,Trueman. “War’s Bloody Silver Lining.” Naval Institute Proceedings.  Volume 132, Issue 4. April 2006.

[6] The advances in frontline medical care and rapid evacuation have come with new challenges. Today there are more men and women living with traumatic brain injuries, amputations, and post-traumatic stress disorder.  To handle the new wave of post-war treatment, the Navy has built state-of-the-art facilities like the Comprehensive Combat and Complex Casualty Care (C5) Rehabilitative facility at Naval Medical Center San Diego, Ca. to manage trauma service, orthopedic, reconstructive plastic surgery, amputee care, prosthetics, as well as physical, occupational, and recreational therapy outpatient care and rehabilitative services.

 

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