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In the summer of 1988 I found myself temporarily assigned to Camp Pendelton, California Marine Corps Base. I’d requested to go to search and rescue school and I had gotten my wish. Search and rescue, in case you didn’t know, is pretty much as it sounds. Whenever someone turns up missing, or an aircraft goes down, a search and rescue helicopter is sent out in an attempt to find him or her – hence the search – and then you rescue them once they’re found. Every search and rescue team carries at least one medically trained person on board. I was already a Navy corpsman (a medical personal) and I thought being involved with search and rescue would be exciting. And it was, but it brought with it challenges I never could have imagined.

About midway through the eight-week training our commanding officer told us that all available search and rescue personnel – including students – were being requested to be sent to nearby 29 Palms California Marine Corps Base. It seemed that one of their staff had turned up missing and they wanted us to come and help in the search effort. At first we were all excited. After all, we were barely halfway through the training program and we were already being called upon to put what we were learning to the test. But our excitement soon turned to sadness as we discovered that the person we were looking for had already been missing for nearly three weeks.

To make a long story short the military bureaucracy had fouled up again. A young eighteen-year-old marine was left out in the middle of a training field late on Friday night. Nobody had bothered to have a roll call that night because it was already late, so nobody knew he was missing. When Monday morning rolled around the private was reported as being UA – unauthorized absence. His buddies immediately reported that he had not been seen since the training assignment and that he might still be lost on the base. Three days later the Marine Corps recorded him AWOL – absent without leave. Two weeks later and only after the young private’s parents and friends pleaded with the Marine Corps, the search for the young man began. After a week of trying in vain on their own, they called in search and rescue.

We were all gravely disappointed, because we knew we were no longer looking for a live body. You see, 29 Palms is a Marine Corps Air and Ground Combat Center located in the heart of the Mojave Desert. The average daytime temp in the summer is 120°. Chances of surviving just a few hours without water were slim. Adding to the difficulty was the fact that 29 Palms is a huge base - about four times the size of Louisville - and the terrain is very hilly. Knowing that he had been missing for three weeks only worsened the situation.

For two weeks twenty-five aircraft searched the base in an organized grid pattern. On our second week there our commander told us if we didn’t find the marine by the end of the day the search would be called off. Late in the afternoon a call came over my headphones – the young marine’s body had been found. Our commander wanted all the students to the site to witness how a recovery was performed. As our helicopter flew to the site I noticed we landed just on the other side of a small lake. Near the lake was a small building. I later found out that the lake contained a fresh water spring that feed water to the entire base. The building was a pump station that contained a telephone and, was never locked. From the spot where the helicopter landed, where the young marine lay dead, all of this was hidden. You see there was a big berm – maybe twenty feet high – that entirely surrounded the lake and pump station.

It was a great tragedy that a young eighteen-year-old man lay dead. But for me, an even greater tragedy was that this young marine had died from dehydration and heat exhaustion just three hundred yards from life giving water, shelter and a phone and he never knew any of it was there within his reach.

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