A doctor, in or out of the military, is called upon to make life or death
decisions. Many decisions are immediate. Delayed decisions mean death.
Some decisions mean death anyway, despite their best effort. They are
then called upon to be the first to inform distraught loved ones. Their
decisions are reviewed by higher authority, after it's too late to change
anything. These are many of the the same responsibilities a commanding
officer must face.
This level of responsibility is warranted by extensive medical training,
medical experience, and medical testing. A senior military rank is
deserved by this level of responsibility. However, new doctors do not
have the military experience that other officers of their rank enjoy.
The full extent of their own military authority, and the concept of
military camaraderie may be unknown to them. One of my experiences
illustrates some of these problems.
When I was Navigator, the Corpsman was assigned to my department. He was
a new, young, petty officer. His rank was granted by virtue of his medical
training and responsibility. He had no military experience or training
beyond what a seaman would have, and had never been on a ship before. He
was the sole medical authority on our ship. He did, however, have the
right attitude. This was the job he always wanted to do. Thank God I
knew all this before trouble started.
A new Navy doctor arrived onboard for several months temporary duty.
He was a Lieutenant Commander, the same rank as our Executive Officer,
but had never been on a ship before. His arrival was a surprise to our
Commanding Officer, who spoke with the doctor briefly, and introduced him
to our young corpsman. It was a surprise to me also. I first saw the
doctor and the young corpsman mopping the floor. This made them the butt
of jokes and derision that quickly turned ugly.
Feelings are very important. Courage is a feeling. Hate and fear are
feelings. Words can't express how I feel about what Tony did, and he
did it because of his feelings. Jokes and derision
do nothing good, and they destroy good feelings, like "This was the job
he always wanted to do."
I spent the afternoon talking with the doctor and the corpsman about what
I thought they needed to know about the ship. They decided how best to
stop the derision. The doctor told the officers it was because he had
never been on a ship before, and everyone should blame him, and not ridicule
the young corpsman in any way. The corpsman told the Master Chief it was
because he had not been on a ship before, and everyone should blame him,
and not ridicule the doctor in any way. It ended well, but it could have
easily become very ugly.
In another incident, described later, a young seaman was being ridiculed by
his shipmates after he attempted suicide. A Marine officer said "Marines are
better than that, or they would follow orders if necessary." I look forward
to the day when we are all better than that.
Since the first good man gave his life, just to save mine, I am immune from
hate. It was so simple, really, and unexpected. He just said "I can't let
you do it (the job) because you're the only guy onboard with good ideas. We
still need you, if this one doesn't work." He arranged for two more guys to
be there, just to drag me away. Afterward, he was offered strong medications
for pain, for sleep, even for death. He refused them all, just so he could
tell me he was still really happy he did it (the job), before he died. He
said I taught him about "love". I would have called it "courage". Minutes
later, he was dead. He was EM1 Anthony B. Nelson. To us, "Tony". You only
have to read Ernie Pyle, or Theodore White, or Winston Churchill, to find such
uncommon courage was a common virtue in earlier generations. Men of courage
are always cheerful, and help one another, even in the most horrible of
That's what I remember from my horrible experiences. Not hate.
In the hope it might someday be useful, I wrote everything down.
See start .