The scene is the American Civil War, August of 1862, in Prince William County, Virginia.

Confederate and Union armies numbering close to 100,000 total men engaged in a fierce three-day fight called the Second Battle of Bull Run, or the Battle of Second Manassas.  Upon the completion of the fighting on August 30th, thousands of wounded soldiers lay bleeding and dying on the field of battle.  They would lay there for over a week, hopelessly awaiting an evacuation that seemed to never come, thus consigning many to death.

By September of 1862, Union Major Jonathan Letterman had assumed the role of Medical Director for the Army of the Potomac.  One of America’s military medical heroes, Letterman established a system of battlefield evacuation of the wounded, as well as far forward surgical facilities, that would forever change the face of combat medicine.

At the Battle of Antietam on September 17, 1862, Major Letterman’s new Ambulance Corps succeeded in evacuating over 23,000 casualties from the battlefield in under 24 hours.  It was a drastic change from just the month before.  With the strong support of Union General George McLellan, Letterman pioneered innovations that saved thousands of lives and changed the course of both the Civil War and of U.S. military medicine.

It is no wonder then that the National Museum of Civil War Medicine memorialized Letterman’s accomplishments by establishing the Major Jonathan Letterman Medical Excellence Award as its highest honor, to recognize excellence in caring for America’s wounded.  In October of 2016, the Letterman Award was presented to U.S. Army Colonel (Retired) John Holcomb, medical hero of the Battle of Mogadishu, former commander of the U.S. Army Institute of Surgical Research (USAISR), and a charter member of the Defense Department’s Committee on Tactical Combat Casualty Care (CoTCCC).

Dr. John Holcomb (Photo by the National Museum of Civil War Medicine)

It is not every day that a commander of U.S. Special Operations Command (SOCOM) — at the time, U.S. Navy Admiral (SEAL) Eric Olson — travels from Tampa, FL, to San Antonio, TX (or anywhere else, for that matter), for the retirement ceremony of a military physician.  Nor is it every day that a military physician is awarded the U.S. SOCOM Medal, a signature honor for contributions to U.S. special operations.

Holcomb was the recipient of both of these honors when he retired from the U.S. Army in 2008.

Dr. John Holcomb first became well-known throughout the military trauma community for his actions as the surgeon for the Joint Special Operations Command (JSOC)’s Task Force Ranger in the Battle of Mogadishu in 1993.  During that combat action, popularized in the book and movie “Black Hawk Down,” Holcomb operated on the wounded for 48 non-stop hours, for which he received the Bronze Star and the enduring respect of the U.S. Special Operations community.