Support our mission

Lance Cpl. Tyler Thompson took off his boots outside his tent at the Jungle Warfare Training Center in Okinawa. The quiet Southerner had tweaked his ankle while running the center’s vaunted E-Course, and it had puffed up to the size of a baseball. Navy Corpsman Jarrod Colby Johnson sat down next to him.

“You have to keep it elevated,” the 23-year-old said, gingerly placing Thompson’s swollen ankle on his lap. He sat still for a long time, making sure Thompson kept his foot elevated.

Later in India Company’s six-month deployment, the Marines were forced to wait hours in the hot summer sun to make a coordinated battalion-wide assault near the Korean Demilitarized Zone.

Johnson dropped to the hot gravel, using a large rock for a pillow, his boonie cap pulled low over his face so he could sleep. Lance Cpl. Kyle Littell approached and lay down next to Johnson, placing his head on the corpsman’s shoulder. He too drifted off to sleep.

The relationship between Marines and their corpsman is a special bond, forged in the throes of training and war. Johnson, like his predecessors, had become a beloved and dependable caretaker, one the 3rd Platoon Marines could lean on in a pinch.

“It really is an intimate relationship,” said India Company executive officer 1st Lt. Phillip Richard.

Generally, Navy corpsmen come in and they know very little about the Marine rifleman community, Richard said, “so they’re kind of like sponges in terms of picking up the personality and the skills of that platoon. … They get to see what the real [rifleman] does on a daily basis. They get completely folded into it.

“They’re expected to be employed almost above and beyond any [Marine rifleman] because when that [rifleman] starts to go down, the corpsman is the guy that is going to come up, assess him, give a proper [situation report] up to higher [command] and make sure they stabilize that guy in the event of the worst-case scenario,” Richard said. “They have to get very close because they’re depending on each other.”

Johnson, from Marshville, N.C., vividly remembers the day he decided to join the military: Sept. 11, 2001.

He said he was coloring a pumpkin in his fourth-grade class when a distraught teacher entered the classroom. They turned on the television.

“I just remember looking at the twin towers as the second plane hit,” he recalled. “I remember going to my mom, ‘I want to go fight, like right now.’ ”

Johnson — now on his first deployment with the Marines — joined the Navy four years ago.

The corpsman started off at Naval Hospital Camp Lejeune, N.C., where he worked in labor and delivery. In his spare time, he volunteered in the emergency room to keep his skills sharp. He was attached to several Marine units before arriving at the 3-2, but they never deployed.

Though he didn’t make it to Iraq or Afghanistan, it has been a long, hard road for the dedicated father. He said he is haunted by the babies who died at the hospital and saddened by the salty veterans who rendered their final salute in his care.

He has found solace in caring for America’s shock troops.

Johnson still has that desire to fight for his country but hopes he never has to use his medical training in combat. Unlike most of the India Marines, corpsmen in combat are tasked with caring for the most severely wounded last, to keep Marines in the fight — the opposite of triage medicine in the civilian sector.

On this deployment, Johnson has dealt with a slew of maladies, from muscle and skeletal issues to illnesses, while keeping the grunts hydrated and employing preventive medicine. Luckily, there have been no life-threatening issues.

At the same time, he has had to go down the hasty rappels at the training center, assault simulated machine-gun bunkers at Camp Fuji and clear rooms in the live-fire shoot house in South Korea.

“I’m a rifleman until I have to do my job,” Johnson said. “You hope that day never comes.”

author picture
Matthew M. Burke has been reporting from Okinawa for Stars and Stripes since 2014. The Massachusetts native and UMass Amherst alumnus previously covered Sasebo Naval Base and Marine Corps Air Station Iwakuni, Japan, for the newspaper. His work has also appeared in the Boston Globe, Cape Cod Times and other publications.
twitter Email

Stripes in 7

around the web

Sign Up for Daily Headlines

Sign-up to receive a daily email of today’s top military news stories from Stars and Stripes and top news outlets from around the world.

Sign up