Marines manning an entry control point tasked with managing the flow of ambulances heading for the USNS Comfort, a U.S. Navy hospital ship deployed to New York City, ran to the aid of COVID-19 patients whose lives were in danger as their oxygen tanks began to run low in traffic.
On a fairly busy night, the Marines from Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment that are tasked with security for the Comfort may deal with an inbound ambulance every thirty minutes. But on April 7, shortly after midnight, they received a urgent call. A nearby hospital was evacuating, and would be sending patients in a convoy of 10 ambulances at once.
Despite being after midnight, the physical limitations of New York traffic and the pier created a traffic bottleneck that slowed the ambulances ability to offload their patients, and as the Marines redirected traffic to allow the most desperate a clear path to the Mercy, it soon became clear that managing the traffic situation wouldn't be enough.
When a patient in the fourth ambulance in line began to deteriorate as their oxygen tank ran low, the Marines halted all traffic onto the pier, allowing the ambulance to maneuver out of the melee and directly toward the comfort, saving as much as 15 minutes when literal seconds could mean the difference between life and death.
"Us being infantry Marines, we're all trained in Combat Lifesaver/Tactical Combat Casualty Care," Marine Sgt. Austin Loppe said after the fact.
"You need oxygen to survive. And even just going a couple minutes without oxygen, the human brain starts losing function and having permanent brain damage for life."
Loppe's Marines from Lima company had no time to celebrate, however, as just ten minutes later they received another urgent call. The ambulance at the back of the pack had a patient that was now also running out of oxygen. The Marines jumped into action, redirecting the flow of traffic and getting that ambulance to the front of the line, but as they averted that disaster, an unsettling realization began to set in. It wouldn't be long before each of these ambulances were out of oxygen, and as a result, patients stuck waiting could suffer brain damage or even die.
"So that wasn't something that myself or any of my Marines were willing to let happen to an American citizen," Loppe said.
Navy medical personnel moved quickly to provide additional oxygen tanks which Marines working on the pier picked up and sprinted hundreds of meters to the entry control point (ECP). From there, the Marines manning the ECP grabbed the tanks and took off for the ambulances, distributing them to the medical staff on board each.
USNS Comfort during its voyage to New York City.
(U.S. Coast Guard photo by Petty Officer 3rd Class John Q. Hightower)
Despite the strength of both body and will the Marines had on display that evening, they were unwilling to accept the lion's share of the credit. LCpl. Colton Flach from Green Camp, Ohio was among the Marines on the pier that night, but he's quick to credit the Navy and New York City police for their hand in helping to save the patients.
"They're with us 24-7 on post," Flach said. "And the moment that we had got that call, I knew that I could count on them to be able to do whatever I needed them to do, and we would do whatever we could to help them as well to get these patients the medical attention that they needed as fast as possible."
The Marines have played an active role in the Defense Department's efforts to both bolster governmental responses and ongoing inter-service efforts in places like Guam, where U.S. Navy sailors have been evacuating from the Nimitz-class aircraft carrier USS Theodore Roosevelt due to the spread of the coronavirus on board.
The Marines from Lima Company, 3rd Battalion, 2nd Marine Regiment tasked with security for the USNS Comfort did not wait for orders from higher or for a solution to be presented from others. Instead, they utilized small unit leadership, a skill of significant emphasis within the Corps, to rapidly make command decisions that saved lives.
"It's kind of hard to put in words. It's immensely humbling to observe the Marines and actions that small-unit leaders are making, rapid decisions on their own without any sort of tasking or supervision," Marine Capt. Peter Hofinga, the company commander for Lima Company, said.
"Despite the fact that this is not really in their typical task group, or what they trained to do, they are able to operate within that friction and chaos to help both the Navy-Marine Corps team overall as well as New York City residents."