Few enlisted jobs in the Navy come with the responsibility and respect of being a Navy submarine independent duty corpsman (IDC).
Their shipmates call them “Doc,” a title that comes with their job, the health care of their crews underway, independent of a medical officer.
Submarine IDC is one of four types of IDCs in the Navy. But because of how they deploy and the culture of the Submarine Force, it’s arguably the most demanding independent duty corpsman job.
Read on to learn about the challenge of a lifetime and a Navy career that can advance you in uniform and beyond.
“The trust that is automatically placed upon you as the IDC when you walk onboard that submarine for the very first time is immeasurable,” said Master Chief Hospital Corpsman (SS/SW/EXW/AW) Amanda McDevitt, Force Medical Master Chief at Submarine Forces in Norfolk, VA. “They expect us to come in and perform to the standard of their last Doc and to be able to do everything that you read about in the history books.”
Not a lot is published about what happens onboard submarines during their long and usually solo deployments. But the exploits of submarine corpsmen and the pharmacist’s mates before them are a part of Navy lore.
Two submarine “Docs” are known to have performed appendectomies while submerged during World War II, with both happening in 1942, the first year of the war. Both were successful, performed with makeshift equipment and reading instructions from manuals. One took place inside Japanese territorial waters.
When released to the press, the stories went viral, capturing the entire country’s interest. The surgery was dramatized in the 1943 movie “Destination Tokyo,” starring Cary Grant.
Submarine IDCs are the expert that the commanding officer relies on for straight talk when it comes to the crew’s health, and nearly every submarine IDC has a story where they had to react to a critical situation using their skills to save a shipmate. The legacy continues to the current day.
“You can find yourself out to sea with a sick Sailor you need to get off the ship, but your boat is on a mission and you’re now having a one-on-one conversation with the skipper on whether we can continue the mission or need to pull off station and get that Sailor out of here,” said Chief Hospital Corpsman (SS/FMF/AW) Zac Camechis, a submarine IDC who recently completed a four-year tour onboard the fast-attack submarine USS Minnesota.
“Those are really big conversations that you’re responsible for having and there’s nobody to turn to — it’s just you!”
The chance for this kind of duty and responsibility, along with the tight-knit camaraderie of submarine crews, appealed to Camechis when he picked this fork in the road of his career path. At nearly the 10-year mark in his Navy career, he’d spent most of this time with the Marines and longed to go to sea and be part of a Navy crew underway.
“The job is unique. You fill many roles; you wear a lot of different hats,” Camechis said. “As IDC on the boat, you pretty much have a hand in most of the things that happen on the boat and evolutions that are going on, you typically always have a piece of the puzzle.”
Setting these Sailors up for success starts with the recruiting process. Any Hospital Corpsman E-5 through E-7 can apply to be a submarine IDC. They must pass a submarine physical, be worldwide assignable, have documented superior performance, and be recommended by their triad and a current submarine IDC.
Then, there’s a year-long training pipeline to ensure they’ve got the basic knowledge necessary once they’re on board their boat.
“You get a year of training at the Naval Undersea Medical Institute (NUMI) and then you report to your submarine and are expected to continue to hone your skills to perform in the most isolated areas around the world whenever your crew needs you,” McDevitt said.
Upon reporting to NUMI, she said, students start by attending Basic Enlisted Submarine School for eight weeks, where they will learn how to speak submarine language, get basic damage control skills and learn to navigate inside a boat.
The rest of NUMI prepares these fledgling IDCs for their shipboard responsibilities. Among the topics taught are radiation health, submarine medicine and submarine medical administration to name just a few. The course concludes with 12 weeks of clinical rotation split between Groton, CT. and Norfolk, VA.
E-5s who complete the course are automatically advanced to E-6. Those who succeed once on the job have advanced far in the Navy and beyond.
“Like all things related to advancement, it doesn’t necessarily matter what billet a Sailor is assigned to; it’s how well they perform and what they do when they are there,” McDevitt said.
“We’re typically go-getters and want healthy competition with our peers to help drive us, while the job scope, duties and responsibilities of an IDC typically speak to the precepts and career progression of what the advancement boards consider best and fully qualified for advancement.”
In a community of roughly 200 Sailors, McDevitt said, “the Navy says we should have 4 Sub IDC master chiefs. We have historically done so well that we currently have 18!”
Camechi agrees and he’s speaking from his own experience. He was an E-5 meritoriously advanced to E-6 when he graduated from IDC school. He said his first year on the Minnesota was like “drinking through a fire hose” as he worked to handle all the responsibilities his new job entailed.
Towards the end of his second year, he hit his stride, and he decided early to extend onboard for a fourth year.
“Without a shadow of a doubt. I know for a fact that the four years I spent on the boat are why I’m wearing [Chief’s anchors] now,” he said. “As I was doing the job, I didn’t just settle on making sure my job was good; I went above and beyond and qualified as a pilot and co-pilot to drive the boat.”
Stepping outside his traditional boundaries, he was not fulfilling his corpsman role on the boat but helping the team fill the watch bill.
He gives this example to each submarine IDC candidate he helps put in an application package.
“If you want to put on anchors, make sure you’re both efficient and good at your job,” Camechis said. Once you’ve mastered that, start pursuing other qualifications that show your support for the team – that’s what will set you apart from the other first classes on the boat and give you those good evals that directly correlate to putting on anchors.”
It’s not just inside the service where the bevy of skills submarine IDCs are valuable either, McDevitt said.
“The type of management skills that IDCs bring to the table are highly sought after in the civilian sector,” she said. “Just because we do not have a large department of Sailors assigned to us does not mean we don’t lead large groups of Sailors who are both senior and junior to us – we are responsible for every person on that boat.”
Retired IDCs have gone on from the Navy to manage clinics and become physician’s assistants.
“They’re out there running safety and radiation health programs for shipyards and managing programs within the Veterans Administration,” McDevitt said. “The possibilities are endless solely based on the skills we attain along the way.”