Military medics taking command?

Doctors get given officer ranks in the military. But these are really courtesy, not line, ranks. Have there been any cases of military doctors being caught in the field and taking proper command of regular troops? I’d exclude POWs.

What? They’re not courtesies! Those are military officers! Just because they’re not infantry doesn’t make them worthless. More of the military is support than combat; there’re lots of officers who’d be upset about the notion they’re not real officers.

While staff corps officers such as doctors, lawyers, chaplains, etc. are not “line officers” (to use the U.S. Navy term), they are absolutely NOT “courtesy” ranks! Such officers are afforded all of the responsibilities and privileges of any other officer of equal rank.

There is however, one exception. Staff corps officers in the U.S. Navy are not eligible for command at sea. In a combat situation, when there are casualties and the normal chain of command has been broken, the most senior line officer takes command. This is because a line officer is presumed to have the training and expertise to take command of a warship, while a staff corps officer is not.

For completeness, in the U.S. Navy, the officers not eligible for command at sea include the various staff corps (Supply, Medical, Dental, Nurse, Medical Service, Chaplain, Civil Engineer, and Judge Advocate General) but also “restricted line officers” such as engineering duty officers, intelligence and cryptography specialists, and oceanographers. Nevertheless, they are still officers and not in the “courtesy” sense.

To address your question, while I am not as familiar with the other branches of the military, I am pretty sure that the same situation prevails in the field. The most senior line-equivalent officer takes command of troops in the field, even if a staff corps officer is senior.

So if all the line officers in a unit were killed, the senior enlisted would take over?

Does Ben Salomon count?

robby has it in one. The key concept is “chain of command” … an officer is required to hold himself in readiness to accept command when casualties make him the senior line officer in effective condition (and in a position to communicate – an important condition; if, e.g., casualties bring the chain of command down to a major cut off from the command post and a first lieutenant who is the senior surviving non-casualty at the command post, the 1st looie is expected to take command until the major can re-establish communications.) There was a case referenced in a Heinlein story about the training of an officer, which apparently was a real-life case Heinlein had learned about at Annapolis, where a lieutenant was court-martialed and convicted for aiding another injured officer because while he was doing so, all the people in the chain of command outranking him were killed and he was absent from his place of command at the time he became commanding officer.

Quartz is also correct; that is one reason why corporals, sergeants, and petty officers are referenced as NCOs (non-commissioned officers). Consider the case of a platoon, commanded by a lieutenant (the only commissioned officer attached to that formation). His XO is a sergeant. If the lieutenant is a casualty – not at all uncommon in battle – the sergeant is obliged to take command.

Are there really such things as “courtesy officers” in the American military? I take that to mean someone given the title and trappings but without any of the authority or responsibilities typically associated with the rank. Most of the (admittedly limited in number) officers I’ve known would be pretty incensed to be told that their title was a “courtesy”.

What about the US Surgeon General? That post holds the rank of Vice Admiral without any previous training or experience.

But s/he holds that rank in the Public Health Service, not a branch of the military.

I don’t know that this falls under your definition of “courtesy rank”, but Congressional appointees (Attourney General, Director of Central Intelligence, et cetera) have what are known as “equivalent ranks,” which establishes their relative authority. Similiarly, when civilian contractors work on board military craft or on a program they’re assigned “simulated ranks,” typically a warrant officer. The purpose of this isn’t to establish them in the chain of command (they aren’t and can’t even command so much as a buck private or apprentice seaman), but to give them a messure of priority with regard to social protocol, i.e. whether they get to eat in the Officers mess or the enlisted mess, are they bunked in the LQ or the goat locker, et cetera.

If I’m tech-repping on a Navy ship, I’m assigned as a simulated CW-2, permitting me to eat with officers, et cetera. Technically, this puts me at a higher rate than enlisted seamen and NCOs (although IME US Naval warrant officers don’t generally hold command authority except with regard to specific detachments or duties) but as a practical matter I’ll ask the chief petty officer I’m working with to have his seamen or constructionmen do whatever task I need help with. I’m not sure what simulated rank or rate I’d hold with regard to the Air Force since they don’t have warrant officers anymore–it’s never been an issue–but whatever it might be it is strictly a formality, and I depend upon the professional agreeableness of military personnel I’ve worked with (which has always been a high standard whereever I’ve been) rather than any illusionary authority I might claim to hold.


Another point of note: as sort of a contrast to “courtesy ranks”, i.e. someone holding the rank but sans authority, there are (or rather, used to be) brevet ranks in the US Army, in which someone was temporarily promoted to a higher US Army rank and authority but without the corresponding pay grade increase or retirement benefits, and would be demoted back to Regular Army (RA) rank at the end of a conflict. As I understand it, US Army Reserve ranks are all effectively considered brevet ranks, and temporary promotions (field ranks, post ranks, battlefield promotions, et cetera) are all handled as Reserve promotions rather than RA (permanent) promotions.

But I’m not in the Army and reserve the right to be utterly wrong on this topic. :wink:


That post does not hold the rank of Vice Admiral. His rank is, in fact, Surgeon General (the rank abbreviation, however, is VADM), a different title but the same paygrade as Vice Admiral. The Surgeon General is a member of the Commissioned Corps of the Public Health Service, one of the seven Uniformed Services of the United States.

Here’s a handy list:

Marine Corps
Air Force
Coast Guard
Public Health Service (Commissioned Corps)
National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (Commissioned Corps)

The PHS and NOAA Commissioned Officers get the same pay and privileges that the other Services’ officers do.

Might as well include a link from the USPHS itself listing its ranks:

You can be assured that a major is a major in the US Army, and an M.D. warrants the same pay and military courtesy as an infantry major. In MTOE (what you’d call “field” ) medical units, such as a battalion aid station, the commander is a captain or major who is also an M.D.

Having said that… the source of the commission does have some influence on the military bearing of the officer in question. The term is “direct commission”. If you walk in off the street with an M.D. degree, you are immediately awarded what is normally the rank of an officer with 10 years of military experience, and furthermore, your career path and motivation scarcely resemble those of other officers. So sometimes you see majors or even colonels walking around with slovenly uniforms and lackadaisical military courtesy, and you know without even looking that there’s a caduceus on their sleeve. And you’d better believe that this causes friction when they decide they want to boss around infantry captains, or when they decide they want to be John Wayne in a field situation with highly seasoned enlisted men. Don’t get me wrong… there are some direct-commission officers who understand their situation and put extra effort into becoming the officer that the rank deserves… but a lot of them don’t. But fortunately, most of them will never work anywhere except a MASH or a TDA hospital anyway, where they can’t step on any toes.

As a former medical logistics officer (not direct commission), I ran a battalion aid station as a first lieutenant. I worked for a major who was direct commission. (Think Frank Burns, but in a line unit). He was the commander, but in reality I ran the show, put food on the table, and paid the bills. And many was the time I had to smooth over ruffled egos when the Dr. decided he wanted to play army man and go tell the company commanders what they could and couldn’t do.

I can see your point. I don’t know if the U.S. Army has something similar, but in any case my 1LT brother tells me that in practice you’re just dumb not to take the advice of the people who know the situation. He rubberstamped the ideas of the sergeant for a while after taking over his platoon.

12 years ago I was part of a security detail for an observation post in southern Lebanon, which included 10 infantrymen and four tankers (M-60 included) under the command of an infantry lieutenant. Besides us, there were also a bunch of intelligence officers - a major and a gaggle of captains - who did the actual observing (and God knows what else; they kept to themselves). While the latter were obviously the highest ranking men present, the plans for base defense were clear: in case of attack, the lieutenant was in charge, and the intel guys were to keep their heads down and follow his instructions.

Are you sure about supply officers? I know they go to sea, and wouldn’t they have had typical Navy training? I’d be surprised if they were outside the chain of command.

William S. Cox. Cox, a 21 year-old Acting Third Lieutenant, was serving on USS Chesapeake during the War of 1812. In June of 1813, his ship engaged the British frigate HMS Shannon. Cox carried the mortally wounded ship’s captain below decks, not aware that all of the senior officers had become casualties and that command of the ship had fallen to him. In his absence, the British boarded Chesapeake, captured her crew, and stole the ship for service in the Royal Navy. Cox was found guilty by a court-martial on charges of neglect of duty and conduct unbecoming an officer. He was cashiered.

Electus Litchfield, Cox’s great-grandson, spent nearly twenty years on his work to reverse what he viewed as Lieutenant Cox’s unjust conviction and restore his rank. He argued that the engagement of the Shannon was against express orders, and that it was the Chesapeake’s captain at fault, not Cox. Finally, in 1952, Congress passed a private bill authorizing the restoration of Lieutenant Cox’s rank and overturning his convictiom.

Hijack : does this mean that Congress can overturn courts’ sentences???

I’d imagine it probably works differently for military courts than it would for regular courts. Actually, this brings up a couple questions in my head:

The military is part of the executive branch of the government, right?

The courts are of course part of the judicial branch of the government…

so where do the military courts fit? Are they part of the judicial branch? Do they exist in their own judicial pocket within the military in the executive branch?

Also, what it comes down to, is by the time this happened (1952), and due to the narrow scope of the law (restoring the rank of one court martialled naval officer who at this point, I assume, was long dead), probably nobody of any great import cares enough to make an issue of it.