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Sailors conduct Last Roll Call, the time-honored tradition of commemorating fallen comrades, during the 113th Corpsmen Birthday Ball celebration on the docks of Henrietta III riverboat in Wilmington, June 17.

Photo by Sgt. Bryan A. Peterson

North Carolina Corpsmen celebrate 113 years of history

21 Jun 2011 | Sgt. Bryan A. Peterson

Holding a roster straight out in front of his eyes, Petty Officer 1st Class Jason Houchin reads, “HM1 Peterson?”  Petty Officer 1st Class Thomas Peterson replies, “Present!”  Houchins sounds off again, “HA Terrazas?”  Seaman Apprentice Jesus Terrazas yells, “Present!”  Again, Houchins sounds off, “HM1 Gonzalez?”  Louder, he yells, “HM1 Gonzalez?”  Then, softly, “HM1 Gonzalez?”  A corpsman then walks up to place a set of dog tags around on the inverted M-16A2 service rifle inside a pair of combat boots, with a kevlar helmet sitting atop the buttstock of the rifle. He salutes, and then walks into formation. The dog tags represent Petty Officer 1st Class Gonzalez, who gave his life during a time of war.

Referred to as Last Roll Call, the time-honored tradition of commemorating fallen comrades echoed throughout the downtown streets of Wilmington, N.C.,  as nearly 350 sailors from all Marine Corps tenant commands in North Carolina celebrated their 113th Corpsman Birthday Ball, in a fitting way, aboard the Henrietta III riverboat, June 17.

Dating back to June 17, 1898, when President William McKinley approved the creation of hospital corpsmen as a result of imminent danger of combat in the Spanish-American War, more than 2,000 corpsmen have given the ultimate sacrifice, with at least 30 since the Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks.

Retired Maj. Gen. Ray L. Smith, the guest of honor, has an affinity for corpsmen. He recalled one of his corpsman, Petty Officer 3rd Class Michael Thirkettle and his selfless acts during an enemy ambush in Vietnam.

“When I was lieutenant, we were on patrol in Con Thien, Vietnam, when we suddenly received heavy enemy fire from the North Vietnamese,” said Smith. “In the process of giving aid to a wounded Marine, Doc Thirkettle was shot in the leg, but still continued to run across the field during a hail of fire to provide medical assistance to two other Marines while also getting shot twice more.  When the Marine he was currently tending to was shot, he threw himself on top of him to shield him from more enemy fire.  He was killed in the process. He was one of my best. I love corpsmen and I love you guys.”

The Navy, much like the rest of the military services, celebrates its history once a year, but its corpsmen also celebrate their history as a reminder of who they are and what they signed up to do.

“We are the most decorated (military occupational specialty) in the military,” said Petty Officer 1st Class Shannon Pretty, the leading petty officer for surgical services, Naval Hospital Camp Lejeune and also the president of the 1st Class Petty Officer Association, which was responsible for this year’s corpsman ball. “We save people’s lives on a daily basis. Marines can’t go into the fight without us.  It’s important to recognize what we do and those who have gone before us.”

Peterson, the medical board coordinator for NHCL, said the corpsman ball is not only a great way to recognize those who have gone before them, but also to help reaffirm the new corpsmen coming to the Fleet.

“I brought out Maj. Gen. Smith to this year’s 113th Corpsman Ball to let the new corpsmen hear it from someone else outside our field,” said Peterson. “A lot of them are misguided. They need to know that they won’t just take care of sailors, but they will also be taking care of a lot of Marines too.”

Peterson recalled when he walked into a recruiter’s office before he joined the Navy. He walked into the Marine Corps office and told them he wanted to be a Marine Corps medic.

“They laughed at me,” said Peterson.  “But they pointed me in the right direction. It took me five years to get to the Marine Corps side, and it was worth it. I am glad to be a corpsman, glad to have served with Marines in combat. Celebrating our history like this is what it’s all about.”