‘This is what they’re paying me for’
June 14, 2008
Few would argue that practicing emergency medicine is a high-stress job. When you do it in a combat zone, it adds an entirely new dimension.
"Nobody really felt vulnerable until we got hit," recalled Petty Officer 1st Class Andrew Slaughter, a Navy corpsman currently assigned to Naval Hospital in Naples, Italy, referring to an incident in February 2004. "Then it was like, ‘Oh crap – this is for real.’"
It was the first time he had seen a combat casualty up close. At the time, Slaughter was assigned to the 1st Marine Division, deployed to Iraq.
That and several other incidents through October of that year earned him a Bronze Star with "V" device.
Several vehicles in his convoy were hit by roadside bombs planted in a 55-gallon drum hidden behind an exit sign.
The ensuing wreckage left one Marine with a shattered arm, one of his triceps torn apart and an open fracture on his opposite leg. Another Marine had a face full of shrapnel, and a third was knocked unconscious from the blast.
Mental focus is what allowed Slaughter to save their lives.
"That just comes through training while having people yell at you," said Slaughter, who was the only Navy corpsman in the convoy.
"If you can’t concentrate while somebody’s yelling at you, you can’t detach yourself. We’d go up on scene, take the medical bag off, I would just take a deep breath, go through my mental checklist and say ‘OK, this is what they’re paying me for.’ "
The February incident was during Slaughter’s second deployment to Iraq. The previous year he provided humanitarian support in Nasariyah.
His convoy was going from Fallujah to Ramadi when an Army convoy traveling in the opposite direction was struck by a car bomb that hit a fuel tank.
"We pulled off to the side of the road, and I could taste the smoke and soot in the back of my lungs," Slaughter said. "I was trying to pull (the gunner) out who was knocked completely unconscious. He was wedged into the deck at a 90-degree angle.
"We finally get him out, drag him into a ditch in the medium. His arms were real mushy — they felt like sandbags."
Slaughter was told there was a more critical patient that needed attending. A soldier traveling in the convoy had his throat slashed.
"There was a flap — you could see it moving up and down as he was breathing. I told him I was gonna … put a tube in it so he could breathe better. I don’t really remember what he said, I just took out my pocket knife and basically widened up the slit so I could fit a tube in."
He didn’t have much time to tend to those patients. Another bomb was detonated, sending a spray of shrapnel and ball bearings in all directions.
"A staff sergeant took a ball bearing to the eye — he basically had brains coming out of one eye socket. He was dead, there was nothing I could do for him. Half of the gunner’s nose was missing. He had shrapnel all in his face and couldn’t feel his left arm. I splinted his arm, bandaged his face and looked for others who were injured. Some guy had his eardrums blown out."
Not many people could withstand those visuals and still function. But Slaughter said maintaining control is key to saving lives.
"You just have to separate yourself from the situation. If you … get grossed out, the Marine that’s injured is probably gonna die because he’ll get freaked out and his blood pressure will go up, and he’ll loose all the blood in his body."
But he can’t always focus on saving lives. There are times when Slaughter, who said he gets teased constantly about his name and his profession, has to put down his medical kit and pick up a weapon.
During an ambush, he said he had to give his rifle to a scout whose gun was destroyed, and had to use his 9 mm pistol to fire at an approaching vehicle.
In all, Slaughter traveled in more than 140 convoys through active combat zones. His only injury was some minor shrapnel wounds in his foot. Though he’s been back in Naples, Italy, for three years now, Slaughter said his experiences have made him a better corpsman.
"When I talk to junior troops, they know I’m speaking from experience, and that I’m not full of it. I really try not to let what happened carry me. I haven’t been pimpin’ my award."
He said he’s been able to put the graphic experiences into perspective and move on.
"A lot of it stayed me for the first two years. I kept thinking about it over and over again, then just every once in a while. I guess it’s just water under the bridge now."
Petty Officer 1st Class Andrew Slaughter
Medal: Bronze Star with "V"
Earned: February to October 2004, Iraq