Whirring blades from a VH-3D helicopter cut through the D.C. skyline, flop-flop-flop, leaving the Washington Monument in its rear with the pristine South Lawn of the White House its destination.
The image of a Marine saluting the President as he is exiting the “white top” aircraft — known as Marine One when the Commander in Chief is on board — is as much an image of the Nation’s capital as the Lincoln Memorial or the Potomac River.
Marine One is part of a fleet of helicopters that are maintained, flown and protected by Marines from the HMX-1 squadron. These Marines perform integral missions, including the one that uses the White House lawn as its landing pad. But without a small contingent of sailors attached to the historic squadron, their jobs might not get done.
The medical component to HMX-1, which stands for Marine Corps Helicopter Squadron One, is made up of sailors who fill the roles of
flight surgeon, aerospace physiologist, clinical psychologist, independent duty corpsman, aerospace medicine technicians, Fleet Marine Force corpsmen and aerospace physiologist technician. Together, these medical personnel keep the nearly 1,000 Marines in the unit and Marine Corps Air Facility ready to fly, maintain, protect and serve.
“HMX-1 is the largest squadron in the Marine Corps and the size of a small Marine Air Group,” said Navy Cmdr. Andrew Rusnak, HMX-1 flight surgeon. “We have a variety of specialists on the medical team that all have an important role in the mission.”
Much like the squadron’s variety of missions — from Presidential support to overseas operations — their medical department provides services across the medical-care spectrum. They are located near the squadron flight line, which allows easy access to the Marines they serve.
“While in garrison, we conduct most of our medical business in our newly built 7,000 sq. ft. medical and dental facility located in the squadron hangar,” Rusnak said. “As a result of our location, vigilant corpsmen, and support of the commanding officer, we consistently have the highest medical readiness of any squadron I’ve been a part of.”
Similiar to the overall Navy Medicine enterprise, Navy corpsmen serve as the backbone to the HMX-1 medical department. As they hone their skills and grow in their roles, they are given more opportunities by their leadership.
“Corpsmen perform various medical duties found in a primary care clinic, audiograms, vision testing, blood draws, and initial diagnosis and assessment of patients,” said Rusnak. “They also learn important didactic skills under the guidance of an IDC or Flight Surgeon, such as toe nail removals, abscess incisions as well as suturing skills. As corpsmen demonstrate good medical judgment, we give them additional responsibilities and independence, eventually they will be allowed to travel as the sole medical contingency support for a squadron detachment (stateside or overseas).”
As responsibility grows so do the variety and number of tasks a corpsman is assigned. It is imperative that corpsmen continue to learn while working as a team.
“’Fight like you train and train like you fight’ has been our motto at the medical department,” said Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Rosalind Thomas, assistant lead petty officer. “All corpsmen are expected to have hands-on patient care. When there’s an interesting case, we all learn from the experience. For example, one time a Marine sustained a large laceration to his scalp. We had six different corpsmen each place one staple to close his wound (as a learning experience), so we truly work as a team.”
With such diverse missions, medical staff has an opportunity to perform unusual treatments outside of clinical hours. This was the case when a hospital corpsman assisted in a dental accident.
“We often transport our helicopters on large cargo transport planes to our destination and loading/off-loading has the potential of injury if the Marine is not careful,” said Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Erin Castillo. “A Marine was tying down a cargo strap when the buckle accidently came undone and knocked out his front tooth. Knowing a tooth can be saved if replaced in the gum line in a timely manner, I asked for the tooth to see if I could secure it until a Dentist could be found — only to find out the Marine had inadvertently spit it out and flushed it down the toilet.”
Although the tooth was not preserved, the squadron benefits from knowledgeable corpsman like Castillo. Along with emergency situations, corpsmen must be able to explain why they need to perform certain therapies or procedures. This was the case when one normally fearless Marine became nervous around a needle.
“The Marine had never had an I.V. before and was hurting pretty badly — very dehydrated and very sick,” said Hospital Corpsman 2nd Class Andrew Gibson, aviation medical technician. “He came in and was very adamant about not being stuck with a needle. So we got everything ready without him seeing it. As soon as he heard the cap come off the needle, he passed out. We woke him back up using ammonia and he was stable. We let him know why we had to do the therapy. We got the stick on the first time and gave him the I.V. We gave him about two bags and he came back the next day feeling much better and apologized for passing out.”
While some of the memorable stories from the medical team can be lighthearted and involve somewhat routine medical therapies and procedures, a Marine pilot’s experience with the medical staff was anything but ordinary.
“I checked back into the squadron last August, but I was here from 2001 to 2005,” said Marine Lt. Col. Mike Kaminski, VXX Operation Test Team office. “I traveled extensively during that four-year timeframe and saw the benefits of having an embedded medical department.”
The pilot’s first-hand experience with the medical department included some possibly life-saving news from the Navy flight surgeon.
“I was diagnosed with cancer last December and it was ‘Doc’ Rusnak (who made the diagnosis),” Kaminski said. “At first we had no idea what it was, so I got an MRI done. I benefitted significantly from the medical team.”
Many of the members of HMX-1, including Kaminski, praise the easy access to and timeliness of care from the medical team.
“Being able to walk down the street or make a phone call and get an appointment that day is extremely beneficial,” Kaminski said. “With the way our schedules work here it’s beneficial when you don’t have to make an appointment through Tricare or go over to the clinic. You can just walk down the street and say, ‘hey doc, I got this going on,’ and get it taken care of.”
Going through any type of medical treatment can be arduous, but the pilot’s experiences became easier because of the support and availability of the squadron’s medical team.
“These guys were tremendously helpful to me throughout the entire process, aside from how this place operates,” Kaminski said. “When I had a problem or ran out of medicine and had trouble getting a refill, they’d take care of it for me in a heartbeat. It was great having someone you could call on the phone and get something like that taken care of. These guys were great in helping me out.”
Aside from keeping Marines healthy and performing their variety of medical duties, the team is also blazing trails in squadron history.
“My primary job is acting as medical personnel,” said Hospital Corpsman Lance Lopez. “I take care of the Marines who fly and make sure everything is good to go. But I’m also trying to become a crew chief with HMX-1. If I do become one, I’ll be the first Navy crew chief in squadron history.”
Lopez balances his duties as a corpsman while also studying and learning how to be a crew chief.
“If the mission allows, I come down and work with the aircrew every Tuesday, Lopez said. “Then if there are opportunities for me to fly, I try to. I also go TAD once every two months, where I work with the aircrew for about a week and try to get a lot of things accomplished.”
The benefits of having Lopez become a crew chief means that the helicopter he serves will have someone with the same knowledge of a corpsman in case those types of skills are needed at a time when a medical professional is not immediately available.
“I always bring my medical bag when I’m working with aircrew because you never know what going to happen,” Lopez said.
Whether it’s performing routine medical care, diagnosing life-threatening illnesses or becoming multi-faceted service members, the sailors of the HMX-1 medical department continue to make the helicopter rotors turn by keeping their Marines fit to fly.