Story and photos by Cpl. Bryan Nygaard
GARMSIR, Afghanistan – During the late afternoon hours of Jan. 30, Marines with Bridge Platoon, 9th Engineer Support Battalion, 2nd Marine Logistics Group (Forward), were working hard to take apart a medium girder bridge in the rural district of Garmsir, Helmand province. During the disassembly, part of the bridge inadvertently gave way and landed on a Marine’s leg, sending him to the ground, writhing in pain.
“Doc! Doc! Doc! Doc, get up here now!”
Sprinting on to the scene with his medical bag on his back was the corpsman for Bridge Platoon, Petty Officer Third Class Michael Soto. Though he didn’t know exactly what was going on, he ran to where Marines were gathering around a body lying on the ground. Soto knelt down next to the injured Marine and began to determine the extent to which his leg was damaged. His hands trembled slightly as he used his scissors to cut the Marine’s pants so the injury could be exposed.
“I told myself just to relax a little bit,” said Soto. “I was shaking a little. Not because I was scared. I was just kind of hyped up like, ‘Yeah! Yeah!’ Like this is my time. I get to finally do something. It was exciting in a way.”
Once he determined the Marine had suffered a closed fracture, Soto grabbed some splints out of his medical bag. After setting the Marine’s leg, giving him some medicine to dull the pain and taking his vitals, Soto began joking with his patient.
“Oh man, now you’re going to be on light duty for the rest of the deployment,” chuckled Soto. “You’re going to be our new clerk.”
During this time, the commander of Bridge Platoon had coordinated a medical evacuation. Less than 30 minutes later, a Black Hawk helicopter landed in a field next to the bridge site. The injured Marine was placed on a litter and carried by his fellow Marines toward the air ambulance with Soto out in front leading the way.
“That was almost a textbook medevac,” said Staff Sgt. Brian Glory, the staff non-commissioned officer in charge of Bridge Platoon and a veteran of two deployments to Iraq. “The way Doc Soto took care of everything and really controlled the site. He handled his business. He did his job extremely well.”
The 21-year-old Soto has come a long way in his three years since joining the Navy. Growing up in Lake Villa, Ill., (a mere 17 miles away from Naval Station Great Lakes) the self-admitted partier never took anything too seriously. Now he is entrusted with rendering emergency medical treatment to Marines on the frontlines of Afghanistan.
After graduating from Grayslake North High School in 2008, where he played defensive back for the football team, Soto was looking to get out of Lake Villa. He had received acceptance letters from several different colleges including Northern Illinois University, but he had no desire to go back to school. Soto wanted to get a job and get out of the house as soon as possible.
Soto decided to join the military. Much of Soto’s family has served in the armed forces. His father, Antonio, had spent 22 years in the Navy as a sonar technician. For much of Soto’s childhood, his father was aboard a ship at some remote location around the world.
“I saw what the Navy did for my dad,” said Soto. “The stories he’d tell me and the pictures he’d show me … I definitely wanted to do something like that too.”
At first, Soto wanted to join the Marine Corps, but his father, being a career sailor, was not going to allow that. Antonio suggested to his son that he become a Navy Corpsman, who functions as the primary medical caregiver to Marines on the battlefield.
“You’re kind of like a Marine in a way,” Soto was told by his father. “You’ll be treated differently because you’re a sailor, but you’re going to learn a bunch of medical stuff.”
Soto was sold on the idea. After graduating from boot camp and going through hospital corpsman school, he got his first taste of what life is like in a Marine unit when he went through Field Medical Training at Marine Corps Base Camp Pendleton, Calif.
“A lot of guys are like, ‘Oh, it wasn’t that bad,’ but it was pretty hard for me,” said Soto. “The [hikes] and stuff…I did it all. I never want to go back again.
“I learned a lot though. It definitely opened up another side of the corpsman rating. I was thinking it was all in the hospital and then I was exposed to actual tactical care in the field on the ground. You go on field [operations] for like 5 to 7 days. You eat [Meals Ready to Eat], you sleep outside and they teach you how to take care of your feet.”
Once that pillar of training was completed, Soto received orders to Camp Hansen in Okinawa, Japan. After working in a clinic at a different command, he was transferred to 9th Engineer Support Battalion.
In the months leading up to their current deployment to Afghanistan, Soto was busy training alongside the Marines and getting them medically ready. During this time, he found out that the Marines like to poke fun at each other and especially any sailors that are within their ranks.
“He’s too soft so I try to harden him up,” jokes Lance Cpl. Jesus Penagraves, a combat engineer in 9th ESB and a native of Houston. “I try to make him feel like a Marine. Thick skin – he needs it.”
In order to fit in, Soto, who is naturally cheerful and outgoing, had to embrace the unique culture he was placed in.
“Everyone talks trash to each other,” said Soto. “You just kind of take it. I just got used to it. It’s kind of a bond. I started talking trash back. I became one of them.”
Now, three months into the deployment, “Doc” Soto is just one of the guys. He has made many friends throughout the platoon, who he says help him get through every day. In addition to prescribing aspirin, patching up small cuts and pulling splinters from the fingers of Marines, Soto frequently tries to help out with the labor-intensive work his friends are engaged in when they are building bridges.
Glory often chases Soto off of the building site out of fear of him possibly getting injured.
“There are a lot of times he tries to get involved and help the Marines out because he’s created that camaraderie,” said Glory, a native of Tulsa, Okla. “That’s just Doc Soto. But I hold him back because if he gets hurt we’re kind of done.”
At the time of the accident, Soto had taken a break from walking around checking on his Marines and decided to sit down to read a few pages of “Starship Troopers.” Not long after sitting down, he heard the call for help. Without hesitation, the 5-foot-7inch, 140-pound sailor sprinted to the bridge site in only a few seconds.
First Lt. Matt Paluta, the commander of Bridge Platoon, 9th ESB, believes that Soto’s actions have given the Marines peace of mind for the rest of the deployment.
“It wasn’t a major injury, but [Soto] definitely proved his worth,” said Paluta, a native of Cincinnati. “It’s one of those things when Marines see that, they see their doc performing that well under pressure, it breeds confidence. Hey, doc’s got our back – he knows his stuff. Their minds won’t be distracted as much now. Every bridge build, every convoy, hey Doc Soto’s around. We know he can do it.”
Not only do the Marines now have confidence in Soto, but he also has more confidence in himself and his fellow Marines.
“I’m happy it happened while we weren’t being shot at,” said Soto. “It helped me out a lot today because I actually got to see the picture. I got to see how everything worked. The [radio operator] already knew what to do, Lieutenant [Paluta] was already talking to the command. It was just awesome how everything worked. It was so smooth. Now I know all I really have to do is just focus on my job.”