At Bethesda's naval hospital, the unsung heroes are its corpsmen.
On the battlefield, they're the medics for the Marines. In the hospital, they're nursing aides who help an unending stream of patients fight the pain — and sometimes the shame — that comes from being trapped in a hospital bed, for weeks … or for good.
As one patient said: "Corpsmen are Marines' best friends."
When visiting some of the corpsmen from Bethesda, I asked one: "How do you handle this?"
"When you have guys coming back to visit you after they've gotten better — or ladies — it makes all the difference in the world, you know you're impacting someone's life," Corpsman Shaunda Waulk said. "There's nothing better, just to see smiles on their faces and when they come back and they remember you — you helped me through that really tough day, I appreciate it."
I know I did.
The hardest part about being a patient is how helpless you feel. Your corpsman becomes your lifeline at the end of a call bell. That dedication is typical — often, corpsmen are so focused on the patients they forget to take care of themselves.
"It's not like a call bell every now and then," Waulk said. "It's from 6:30 in the morning 'til 7:30 at night."
Adds corpsman Nichole Shaw: "You're not getting to bed until like 10 or 11 o'clock, and then we're getting up at 5 to be here again. So the hours are long."
Their boss calls it "compassion fatigue."
"They work long hours. They often work longer than they should — and what I mean by that is they come back on their days off," said Rear Adm. Adam Robinson Jr., the commander of the Bethesda National Naval Medical Center.
So he created a program of daily five-minute time-outs with a mental health professional for all the caregivers ... to make sure that as long as they're fighting over there, they're ready to keep fighting over here.