Navy Doc and Combat Psychologist Write Graphic Novel For Corpsmen

Historically, a Marine infantryman fights, and a Navy medical corpsman heals. But sometimes corpsmen have to switch from being "Doc" to warrior, especially in Iraq and Afghanistan, where there are no front lines and danger lurks virtually everywhere. More than 40 corpsmen have been killed in action during the current wars. Moreover, surveys of sailors deployed in Iraq indicate that at the height of Operation Iraqi Freedom in 2007, corpsman were exposed to more intense combat than any other Navy component.

There are the psychological issues corpsmen face, too, like the constant threat of improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and insurgent attacks, not being able to save a close buddy, and second guessing one's life-and-death triage decisions, all of which can can haunt a corpsman for life.

As San Diego's Naval Health Research Center chief scientist for behavioral health in the Behavioral Science and Epidemiology Department, Dr. Jerry Larson realized that warrior is an increasingly common role for corpsmen, and saw the need to deliver information that would help psychologically prepare corpsmen for the stress of active combat.

But how best to deliver this information to corpsmen? After some thought, he concluded it could best be done by the the modern storytelling method of a graphic novel. Graphic novels, which are so popular these days among young adults but have not been utilized to date by the military, tell stories with art in a traditional comic format, but have a 'beginning, middle, and end' like traditional novels. Larson says he chose this format specifically for its appeal to the targeted age group and its value in providing thought-provoking content for discussion in training scenarios.

Larson worked very closely on the project with San Diegan Dr. Heidi Kraft, a former lieutenant commander and author who spent nine years as a Navy psychologist and more than seven months on deployment in 2004 at a remote air base in western Iraq during some of the heaviest fighting in Fallujah while her boy and girl twins were fifteen months old.

Creating fictional characters that train, fight, are injured, heal, and ultimately find ways to remain resilient was unfamiliar journey for a career scientist, but, Larson notes, "Heidi was an enormous help." She had already authored a well-received book titled "Rule Number Two: Lessons I Learned in a Combat Hospital," whose title comes from an episode from the first season of the M*A*S*H television series, "Sometimes You Hear the Bullet." In this 1973 episode, Hawkeye, a surgeon, realizes he cannot save an underage Marine. Henry says to Hawkeye: "In war Rule #1 is that young men die. And Rule #2 is that doctors can't change rule #1."

'The Docs' follows four Navy corpsmen from both active duty and reserve components through emotionally charged events and combat stress emergencies, home front issues, and even boredom. In addition, the book addresses how the corpsmen face the stigma of seeking mental health care in their patients and in themselves, and learn of their need to care for one another. It's meant to be both entertaining and informative.

"The stories in this book are actually based on real stories, although names and specifics have been changed," explains Kraft, who got additional assistance from writer Russ Peeler and artist Shari Lambert. "We created this book as a reminder that the caregivers in war are a precious commodity and that they have the same stigma about admitting they are suffering from combat stress as Marines. Corpsmen are taught to be brave and stoic when caring for the wounded. it's a powerful and moving relationship between corpsmen and Marine. At one moment Marines are invincible warriors, the next they they are wounded and completely dependent on corpsmen to save them."

Adds Larson. "We really felt storytelling was the best way to keep their interest and to teach. It was a real privilege to work on the project, and to be given the opportunity to help our courageous corpsman during a time of war."

Click here to download or read 'The Docs' online. Plans are also underway to animate the story for viewing on portable phones and computers. Navy and Marine Corps personnel can order a free hard copy by visiting the Marine Corps Combat and Operational Stress Control website.