Sailor recognized for loyalty to Marine Corps

21 Mar 2005 | Sgt. Christopher Reed

More than 2000 years ago, the Roman general Heraclitis made an observation about the kind of men in his army:

"Of every 100 soldiers, 10 do not belong there and should be sent home.  80 are just targets.  9 are the true warriors, and we are glad to have them, for they make the battle.  But 1, he is the leader, and he brings the rest home."

The vision of Heraclitis and the highest traditions of the United States Naval Service were inextricably bound together during an awards ceremony at the Chemical Biological Incident Response Force (CBIRF), located at Indian Head, Md., recently. 

HM3 Peter J. White, a recipient of the Air Medal (4th award) turned to face his fellow Marines and sailors as they silently recognized one who was responsible for many of America's warriors coming home.

The Air Medal, an award authorized by President Franklin D. Roosevelt' executive order, recognizes any person who, while serving in any capacity in the Armed Forces of the United States of America, distinguishes himself by meritorious achievement while participating in an aerial flight. 

"Only those who fly in combat can earn it," said Capt. Steven M. Temerlin, the medical officer for CBIRF.  "This is HM3 White's fourth Air Medal.  80 combat flights.  It represents getting into the helicopter 80 times, no matter how fast your heart is racing and how much your legs feel like jelly."

According to Temerlin, White's perseverance and loyal devotion to duty in the face of hazardous flying conditions meant he "got back in the aircraft the next day after being shot down.  He went again even after two more emergency landings with engines on fire."

"It took more than courage to get on that aircraft 80 times.  It also required respect for and love of the Marine Corps," said Temerlin.  "It meant a willingness to take any risk for the chance to help a wounded Marine.  It shows how much he values the honor of serving with them."

White, a six-year veteran of the Navy, does not seek recognition for executing his duty.  His brothers and sisters are still serving in an Iraq fraught with death and destruction. 

"When it comes down to it," White said, "I just did my job."

The soft-spoken Navyman describes his job with the distance and clarity of a man committed to the objectives of a nation at war with terrorism.

"It was 1500 in the afternoon.  the command operations center gave us our mission," White recalls.  "When my bird arrived at the landing zone, the ground corpsman already had the Marine on a stretcher.  Things happened so quickly because we were in a hot zone which was directly behind the firefight the Marine had been wounded in."

"Before I get to the mission I run through all the possible injuries in my mind and how to treat them.  In the case of this particular wounded Marine, he had been shot 5 times on the right side of the body," said White.  "He had a broken leg and arm.  In addition he had suffered gunshot wounds to both his stomach and chest."

"I got tunnelvision," said White, motioning with his hands as best he could the singular vision of one charged with the task of saving another's life.  "I got out of the CH46E and ran over to the Marine.  All I knew is he got shot.  First thing I do is help get him on the bird, because it is not safe on the ground.  As the bird is lifting off I start bandaging him up.  I put two tourniquets on him to stop the bleeding."

White had been prepared for missions like this during his time with 3rd Light Armored Reconnaissance based out of 29 Palms, Calif. 

"You never know if you are prepared until it happens," White explains.  "Being with grunt units is one of the things that prepared me for the fieldwork I did in combat.  I had seen and performed medical procedures on gunshot wounds before." 

A thought shot through White's mind as he assisted the wounded Marine. 

"It entered my mind to call my Dad who was a Marine and fought in the Vietnam War," White said.  "I wanted to ask him who his corpsman was and if he remembered him.  I just wanted him to know that I had gone to war just like he did.  That I had done my part."

According to Temerlin, White also performed three complex surgical procedures that most physicians have never done. 

"One of the Iraqi Regular Army soldiers had suffered multiple shrapnel wounds to his face from an artillery attack," White said.  "His airway was blocked.  Like every mission, the images of what I needed to do went through my mind.  I then performed a tracheotomy.  You hope things like this will never happen, but you want to be prepared when they do."

The Iraqi Regular Army soldier represented one of America's foes in the ongoing war on terrorism.  How could the enemy shed light on the mission of a Navy corpsman? 

"I do not question the possibility of performing life-saving procedures on the enemy," said White.  "For me the Marines always come first.  As a corpsman that is what I must and will do.  After that, I choose life.  I have even treated Iraqi civilians."

He recalls one such experience.

"A little girl cut herself on concertina wire," White continued.  "The oldest son brought her to me.  I was apprehensive at first because anyone can be the enemy.  After awhile though being a corpsman kicks in.  I cleaned off the cut, then put some antibiotic cream on it and a bandage.  The girl was so thankful, she didn't even cry.  She was so beautiful," White recalls.  "She brought her family back and they thanked me as well." 

Being in a war torn area has served to raise White's consciousness of how differently people live outside of the United States.

"I no longer take anything for granted," White said.  "All over the world there are people with less than we have in America.  We are lucky to live in America with the freedoms we have.  Over there females are at the bottom of the totem pole.  We would give little girls candy and the boys would take it and beat the girls up for accepting it from us."

Reflecting upon experiences such as this remind White of why he joined the Navy.

"I joined because something was missing in my life," said the Buffalo, N.Y., native.  "I thought by joining I could do a lot of good helping people, and I had a feeling I could make the biggest impact in the medical field."

"White's impact has been recognized by yet another prestigious award.  He also received the Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal with a combat distinguishing device. 

According to the citation that accompanies the award, on 4 April, 2003 during Operation Iraqi Freedom, White launched on two casualty evacuation missions in support of Regimental Combat Team Five's attack into downtown Baghdad during the tank battle of Salman Pak.

He disregarded his own safety and egressed the aircraft to assess, prioritize, and load the casualties while Marines returned fire.  While the aircraft was in flight, White provided life saving medical care resulting in the stabilization of eight Marines

"You have to keep on going," White said calmy, remembering the battle. 

White's enlistment in the Navy ends in September of 2006, and he looks resolutely to the future.

"I would like to be a game warden," said White.  "I love fishing and being a warden was something I thought about often in Iraq.  I hadn't fished since I was eight years old before I went to Iraq, and now fishing is all that I want to do ... and spend time with my wife."

Chemical Biological Incident Response Force