At the beginning of 2005, the U.S. military was still trudging its way through an intensifying war in Iraq just 13 months after having pulled Saddam Hussein from a spider hole in Ad Dawr. U.S. support for the war had been waning since his capture in December 2003, as the post-9/11, pro-war glow had worn off, revealing instead its stark and bloody tragedies. This grim reality was punctuated with a deadly exclamation point on 26 January 2005, when 37 U.S. troops were killed, the deadliest day to date of the Iraq war. Among those killed were 31 who died in a helicopter crash. And among those 31 was Hospital Corpsman Third Class (HM3) John House.1
HM3 House’s story underscores the corpsman’s unique and versatile role in the Navy and Marine Corps. In the wake of House’s sacrifice, however, the Navy was preparing a seismic shift in the hospital corpsman rating: the merger of the dental technician and hospital corpsman ratings. It was a move that saturated an already diverse rating and should be revisited and overturned.
The hospital corpsman rating was established on 17 June 1898, with the country on the brink of the Spanish-American War. The corps as it is known today arose from the ashes of World War II, when the current rank structure began taking shape. Since its inception, the hospital corps has evolved into the most diverse rating in the Navy, not to mention the most decorated. The black-and-white portraits of 22 hospital corpsmen Medal of Honor recipients look down on corpsmen in every hospital and battalion aid station across the Navy and Marine Corps, a stoic nod to the self-sacrifice that motivates the next generations.
Lost in the grandeur of such heroics is that a wide swath of subspecialties make up this decorated corps. Hospital corpsmen are radiation health technicians, lab technicians, and search-and-rescue medical technicians. Hospital corpsmen are equipment technicians and nuclear medicine technologists. Hospital corpsmen are opticians and medical deep sea diving technicians. They are submarine force independent duty corpsmen and morticians; respiratory therapists and psychiatry technicians. Hospital corpsmen fulfill any number of 36 subspecialties in the medical field. Hospital corpsmen are also dental technicians.
It was not always so. The dental technician rating was first established on 12 December 1947 and became effective on 2 April 1948. It was wholly separate from the corpsman community. When then–Chief of Naval Operations Admiral Mike Mullen signed the approval in July 2005, the rating was folded into the hospital corpsman rating. At the time, then–Force Master Chief Jacqueline DiRosa, director of the Hospital Corps at the Navy’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, said:
When the merger is completed, it will allow us to better support our operational forces by ensuring all enlisted medical personnel have the same baseline of training; by improving flexibility in the utilization of all enlisted manpower, and by improving career opportunities of our Sailors. Our most important consideration throughout this whole merger process is the professional development and career enhancement of each and every member of the Hospital Corps.2
The thinking at the time seemed to be a consolidation of training, touted under the guise of broader occupational improvements. The efforts of leaders to prop up this argument by purporting sailor improvement fall flat. Whereas medical and dental proficiencies can, in theory, be housed under the same umbrella of study, the practice of each specialty is independent of the other. The consolidation of studies only muddied the development of corpsmen and dental technicians, layering training with complexities unrelated to job scope.
Dental Technician School originally gave students, over the course of 60 calendar days, specialized training with dental-specific principles.3 The post-merger course was tacked on to the end of the 14-week Hospital Corps School training as a six-week addendum, an afterthought, it seemed.4 Imagine the young and passionate dental technician lumbering through 14 weeks of basic corpsman training to finally arrive at the true course of study. It is a lengthy and needless preface. Dental technicians usually spend about 70 percent of their time on shore duty, which equates to clinical work in a specialized dental facility. Once in the fleet, there is no overlap with basic hospital corpsman skills. Thus, there should be no overlap in the training.
The change for the basic hospital corpsman was minimal. It was, and remains, a nuisance. Most corpsmen likely see the change during their biannual digestion of the Navy-wide advancement exam, in which dental health knowledge peppers the 175-question test and ends up as the proverbial acid reflux of post-exam recovery. The dental health knowledge is necessary only for the purpose of passing the advancement exam and serves no benefit in practice. But it nonetheless appears in this test and nowhere else in the daily rituals of a corpsman’s job.
The answer, then, is to revert to the old method of teaching corpsmen and dental technicians. Instead of a broader knowledge of basics, enhance the specificity of training, especially for dental technicians. While the original intent of the merger was to enhance sailors’ professional development, it seemingly has done the opposite, force-feeding unnecessary knowledge into two communities and hindering development through nonessential compulsory learning for the sake of learning. Mastering specifics is what will enhance the fleet, not just broader understanding of basics.
Logistically, reverting this training can be done. The impact will only minimally affect basic hospital corpsmen. While dental technicians will bear the brunt of the changes, this can only result in positive outcomes, as they now can focus solely on their job scope, independent of basic hospital corpsman skills that become perishable once they hit the fleet and are not part of their daily job. The dental technician basic curriculum could be reformatted, specifically applied to the dental technician rating with an emphasis on mastering dental basics. Any follow-on training could be conducted in the fleet, with on-the-job skills specific to their particular job scope.
The dental technician skillset is then built on a foundation of technical proficiencies instead of barely related classroom instruction. The learning is then done in the fleet. The result is a savvier dental technician with job-specific training with an emphasis on expertise, not broad knowledge. And the hospital corpsman, without the pesky dental knowledge testing improvement, can thrive and advance on more relevant information.
All corpsmen are not the same. In theory, streamlining the training may once have seemed a sound investment. But in an already diverse rating, the Navy is not producing quality dental technicians, but is instead muddying the waters of training with unnecessary information. Split the ratings again. Ensure the dental technician rating is focused on expertise, not broad medical knowledge. And free the hospital corpsman of the force-fed learning of the dental technician rating for testing purposes, because, rest assured, the last thing that was on the mind of HM3 House as he threw himself into the bowels of war, was oral health.
1. “Navy Medic Killed in Iraq Wanted to Protect Comrades,” Associated Press, 27 January 2005, thefallen.militarytimes.com/navy-hospital-corpsman-3rd-class-john-d-house/623173; “Deadliest Day for U.S. in Iraq,” CNN, 27 January 2005, cnn.com/2005/WORLD/meast/01/26/iraq.main/index.html.
2. Christine A. Mahoney, “Dental Technician, Hospital Corpsman Job Ratings Unite,” Navy.mil, 4 August 2005, navy.mil/submit/display.asp?story_id=19476.
3. Rod Powers, “Dental Technician (DT) Job Description and Qualification Factors,” The Balance Careers, 30 March 2019, thebalancecareers.com/dental-technician-3345803.
4. Greg Tyler, “Navy Bureau of Medicine Merging Hospital Corpsman, Dental Technician Rates,” Stars and Stripes, 15 November 2004, stripes.com/news/navy-bureau-of-medicine-merging-hospital-corpsman-dental-technician-rates-1.26122.