US Navy submariners tell who act as doctors aboard submarines given that physicians are not generally aboard

US Navy submariners tell who act as doctors aboard submarines given that physicians are not generally aboard

By Dario Leone
Mar 11 2024
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Doctors not onboard US Navy submarines

What happens when you get sick on a submarine?

When we think about the day to day operations of the submarine fleet, sickness isn’t something that normally comes up in a discussion. While crews today are larger than in the past, they are still a selected group with not much room for extra hands according to Submarine Force Library and Museum Association.

Independent Duty Corpsman

Normally, a doctor is not onboard a submarine as Ralph Cahill, US Navy Reserve Submarine Officer, explains on Quora;

‘US Submarines do not have a doctor on board. They have a Hospital Corpsman (this is what the Navy calls what most people might know as a medic). They are always a more senior Corpsman so they have years of experience under their belt. Also, since they are the only medical person on board, they receive specialized training as an “Independent Duty Corpsman” (IDC). This allows them to perform emergency medical procedures that a typical Corpsman would be ill equipped to perform.

‘However, they are not doctors and so there are limits to what things they can do on board. In cases of dire medical situations, the IDC will do their best to stabilize the patient and then the submarine will attempt to Medically Evacuate (MEDEVAC) them as quickly as possible.’

Doctors onboard US Navy submarines during the Vietnam War

Nevertheless, during the Vietnam War doctors served aboard US Navy submarines as LCDR Lealis Hale MC (SS) USNR, recalls on Quora;

‘Actually Boomers (SSBNs) had physicians on board as a member of the wardroom during the heydays of “41 for Freedom.” I served two patrols out of Guam on the Tecumseh SSBN 628 (blue) in 1969. Submarine Medical Officers had their own path to obtaining their dolphins, and many qualified. Some medical officers even qualified as OOD and stood watch in rotation in that position. We had a two-man department, the doctor and the Independent Duty Corpsman. With backdating of the Date of Rank upon entering active duty as reserve officers, we were usually relatively senior members of the officers on board. I came aboard as a Lt, and left the Reserves a few years later as a LCDR.’

Doctors no longer aboard US Navy submarines

Hale concludes;

‘I’m assuming that with the Vietnam era ending as well as the Doctor Draft, fewer physicians volunteered for submarine service. Physicians still join the Submarine Service, and the Submarine Medical School has officers in training at its New London Sub Base, Connecticut.

‘But the poster is correct, physicians no longer ride the boats on patrols.

‘I can say that my shipmates on the boat and later as my tour as Squadron (One) Medical Officer were the most dedicated, well-trained group of officers and men (no women back then) I have had the honor of serving with.’

US Navy submariners tell who act as doctors aboard submarines given that physicians are not generally aboard

Photo credit: U.S. Navy

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Dario Leone

Dario Leone

Dario Leone is an aviation, defense and military writer. He is the Founder and Editor of “The Aviation Geek Club” one of the world’s most read military aviation blogs. His writing has appeared in The National Interest and other news media. He has reported from Europe and flown Super Puma and Cougar helicopters with the Swiss Air Force.

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