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Military pharmacy teams continue dedicated legacy of service

Black and white image of soldiers on the battlefield Pharmacist’s Mates have continued to distinguish themselves on the battlefield by risking their lives to render aid to their comrades. (Courtesy photo.)

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During American Pharmacists Month, the Military Health System is recognizing the critical component of care pharmacy teams deliver. The flexibility exhibited by pharmacy personnel during COVID-19, to include establishing curbside and drive through pharmacies, further a legacy of agile and dedicated service.

Pharmacists and pharmacy technicians have dispensed medications and managed critical supplies for the military throughout U.S. history. Pharmacists officially became a part of the nation’s military during the Revolutionary War. Formerly known as apothecaries or druggists, these dedicated service members served within the Medical Department of the Army with varying ranks and titles. In 1943, Congress passed a bill officially creating a Pharmacy Corps within the Army’s Medical Department.

These pharmacists, pharmacy mates and pharmacy technicians have conducted themselves with dedication and honor throughout American history, and at least seven have been awarded the Medal of Honor, the highest military honor for valor. The first was pharmacist and physician Joseph Kirby Corson, who received the Medal of Honor for his actions at Bristoe Station, Virginia on October 14, 1863. He dedicated his military career to caring for soldiers – at one time risking his life to care for over 40 fellow service members sick with cholera during the Civil War.

During World War I, Pharmacists Mate First Class John Balch earned not only the Medal of Honor, but also the Distinguished Service Cross, the Silver Star Medal, the French Croix de Guerre, the Italian Crux de Guerre and the Portuguese Cruz de Guerra for his heroic actions in France. He received the Medal of Honor for his heroic actions at Vierzy in July of 1918, as he voluntarily left his medical aid station to render care to the wounded as they lay on the battlefield, and his actions in October at Somme-Py, where establishing an advanced aid station while under heavy shellfire.

Though he did not receive the Medal of Honor, in 1942 Pharmacists Mate Wheeler Bryson Lipes went beyond the requirements of his role by performing the first ever emergency appendectomy aboard a submerged submarine. He had never performed surgery before, but saved the life of his fellow sailor. He received a Navy Commendation Medal and his heroic story went on to be told in several movies.

Five Navy Pharmacist’s Mates also received the Medal of Honor during World War II. Pharmacists Mate First Class Francis Pierce Jr. was one of them, as he led a patrol to destroy a nest of Japanese snipers and was wounded while aiding a fallen Marine. Refusing aid for himself, Pierce returned to treat the casualty. His citation reads, “Completely fearless, completely devoted to the care of his patients, Petty Officer Pierce inspired the entire battalion.”

On February 19, 1945, Pharmacist’s Mate Second Class George Whalen’s division landed on Iwo Jima. By March 2nd, Whalen had been wounded twice, but still refused evacuation and stayed on the battlefield to aid wounded Marines – to include casualties from an adjacent platoon. When he was shot a third time, he was no longer able to walk, but he crawled 50 yards to administer aid to a wounded Marine. Only after he saw to his patient did Whalen finally agree to be evacuated to a battalion aid station.

Whalen’s citation reads: “Stouthearted and indomitable, he persevered in his determined efforts as his unit waged fierce battle and, unable to walk after sustaining a third agonizing wound, resolutely crawled 50 yards to administer first aid to still another fallen fighter.”

These decorated pharmacy personnel displayed selfless service that modern pharmacy teams seek to emulate as they adapt to the unique challenges of their own era.

“Throughout my career I have seen pharmacy technicians go above and beyond their role, exhibiting flexibility to support the mission,” said Air Force Chief Master Sgt. Oluwasina Awolusi, Air Force Enlisted Pharmacy Career Field manager. “I am deeply inspired by the heroic actions of pharmacy technicians throughout history, and seek to honor their memory.”

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Maj Gen Lee Payne, USAF, MC, CFS, Assistant Director-Combat Support, Defense Health Agency

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