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).
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.
Of note, another officer present for that combat action, future SOCOM commander Eric Olson, would also be awarded for his valor, with the Silver Star.
Dr. Holcomb went on to become a leader in every aspect of combat casualty care in the U.S. military during the early years of the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan. Army Colonel Lorne Blackbourne, who relieved Colonel Holcomb as the Commander of the USAISR in 2008, said of John Holcomb, “There is no one who has been responsible for saving more lives among U.S. casualties in Iraq and Afghanistan than John Holcomb.”
Not many would disagree, despite some who see Holcomb’s methods as at times too aggressive.
Due in no small measure to these aggressive efforts, the U.S. military has achieved the highest casualty survival rate in its history in Iraq and Afghanistan since 2001. In a 2009 article in the Journal of Trauma, “The Warrior’s Combat Surgeon,” Lorne Blackbourne described Dr. Holcomb’s personal contributions to this historic achievement and the admiration and respect that Dr. Holcomb is accorded from everyone in military medicine who has had the good fortune to know him.
In addition to personally leading the effort to establish the military’s Joint Trauma System (JTS) and the Department of Defense’s Trauma Registry, both integral components of caring for America’s wounded, Holcomb directed the SOCOM Tactical Combat Casualty Care Transition Initiative, thus leading the way in the transformation of battlefield trauma care in the U.S. military and around the world. He would go on to become a charter member of the Committee on Tactical Combat Casualty Care and one of its strongest voices over the last 15 years.
Holcomb was also the recipient of the 2009 Committee on Tactical Combat Casualty Care Frank K. Butler Award for Outstanding Contributions to TCCC, as well as a co-recipient of the first U.S. Special Operations Command Surgeon’s Award in 2005. In addition, Holcomb was the 2014 recipient of the John Pryor Award from the Eastern Association for the Surgery of Trauma. This award is given each year to the individual who has made the greatest contributions to military trauma care.
Since retiring from the military in 2008, Dr. Holcomb has accumulated almost 10 years of experience as a leader in civilian medicine, practicing at a large urban academic medical center where he has had multiple leadership roles, including Vice Chair of Surgery at UT Health, in Houston, Texas. His hospital is not only one of the busiest trauma centers in the country, but also has a nationally recognized reputation for the highest quality patient outcomes.
Dr. Holcomb is also a member of the American College of Surgeons Committee on Trauma, the most authoritative group of thought leaders in the world on trauma care. He is a member of the White House Task Force on translating military trauma care advances to civilian mass casualty events, and a member of the Hartford Consensus Working Group. The latter group, established after the Sandy Hook School shooting in Newtown, CT, has taken the lead for the American College of Surgeons in translating military advances in external bleeding control to the civilian world.
One could go on and on about this impressive medical practitioner, but the point is hopefully made. Dr. John Holcomb has done as much as any single man to help save thousands of wounded U.S. military lives on the battlefield. He deserves every award he has received, and more, and it is through efforts such as his, as well as those of his colleagues, that the U.S. military medical community will continue to best serve wounded American servicemen and women.
(Featured image courtesy of The New York Times)