Patriot Profiles: ‘It’s not how well you outperform people — it’s how you work as a team’

By Jeanne McKinney

A Navy Corpsman is an essential key to deep sea rescue operations. When a distress call comes a medical team reports to Undersea Rescue Command, and Command has 72 hours to get trained personnel and equipment to the sunken submarine site. Over the years, American and international sailors were tragically lost due to a lack of effective methods and technologies to remove survivors. The United States Navy’s next generation Submarine Rescue Diving Recompression System (SRDRS) leads the world in the ability to safely extract crews of disabled and trapped submarines running out of time on ocean floors.

Petty Officer First Class Sunshine Padilla is a Hospital Corpsman attached to Undersea Rescue Command (URC) stationed at Naval Air Station North Island, San Diego. She’s a member of a triage team, whose main job is to make sure patient transport from the rescue module to the surface ship is “good to go.” Padilla describes triage as helping to sort and categorize the types of injuries, which result from burns, trauma from impact, near drowning, or the dreaded Decompression Sickness (DCS), when life-threatening nitrogen bubbles form in the blood or body tissues.

The first SRDRS phase delivers to the disabled sub an Atmospheric Dive System (ADS 2000). This manned one-atmosphere dive suit that can be lowered 2000 feet to inspect damage and clear escape hatches.

The second phase deploys the Submarine Rescue System-Rescue Capable System (SRS-RCS), which is a tethered and remotely-operated two-manned module launched from the forward deck of the ship. It rescues up to 16 sailors at a time. Padilla states, “We mate this pressurized module to the submarine, try to get equal pressurization and get everyone out.”

Depth of sub impact determines how many hours before survivors can surface. Padilla explains, “The deeper you get, the more air expands in the lungs. You don’t want to go up too fast or they can burst.” Gradual ascent is calculated by a dive table so air bubbles can equalize. Padilla and her medical team step up once the remote module reaches the rescue ship.

“I look through the incoming patients or ask the person assisting the patients ‘what are the symptoms?’”

If Padilla sees any obvious signs of distress she relates that to her provider, the Dive Medical Officer who is an ENT surgeon. She must also be “watchdog” to make sure no further injuries occur.

The third and final phase will use the Transfer Under Pressure System (TUPS) to be delivered to the Navy in November 2013. TUPS will allow sailors rescued from pressurized subs to remain under pressure during transfer to hyperbaric treatment chambers on board the support ship.

“They haven’t given me a job description for this, but I know when it comes in we’re going to do man-training,” she adds grinning, “I’m going to be the test dummy.”

The diversity of undersea rescue is very challenging to someone who did not come from a diving background.

“I’ve always been on shore commands where it involves a hospital. My background as a general Corpsman was mainly emergency room – nasal gastric (NG) tube placements, trauma stuff from sutures to immediate patient action. Now, I have to deal with the dive community, the sub community, and private contractors.”

Sunshine was named by her mother for the first thing she saw after her birth. Her parents migrated to Ingleside, Calif., over 30 years ago and still live Philippine cultural ideals that everyone is family.

“I didn‘t want to be a Filipino who stays at home until married. I wanted to travel — get away and be independent,” Padilla said. That independence shines a light on a culture that takes pride in their sons and daughters entering the medical field. HM1 Padilla brought her sunny disposition and work disciplines to Undersea Rescue Command, winning “Sailor of the Year” in 2012.

Her humble version of how she got there is, “I just do what I’m told. I like doing community service — command involvement. I don’t really whine or complain. I’m thankful they’ve acknowledged that.” Her Navy Achievement Medal (NAM) was based on knowledge, skill, effort, performance, oral presentation, military bearing, and performance. Excellence in these categories is often times hard-won.

She remembers being freaked out as a newly trained E3 serving in Kuwait. A mass casualty incident rousted her out of bed at 3 a.m.

“I didn’t know what to do”, she says. When the 13 patients from the U.S Carl Vinson came through, that’s when everything the Navy taught her bloomed. “The fun,” as she tags it, “went on for about six hours until we got everyone stabilized and triaged.”

Serving with the Marines is a future goal, as Navy Corpsmen attend to their medical needs. The closest field trauma she’s encountered is taking a Combat Casualty Care (Triple-C) course. “It made me hyped up. I wanted hands-on everything.” She knows the risks, “I can’t let fear get to me.”

Padilla’s hardest test was working with detainees at GITMO, a classified subject, but offers, “You have to apply more psychology.” Her greatest accomplishment was leading 35 junior sailors in her old command, “From my [Corpsman] experience, I trained them well [teaching] it’s not how well you out-perform people – it’s how you work as a team.” Half of those sailors graduated with a degree or were selected for awards.

There hasn’t been a major submarine disaster since August 2000, when the Russian K-141 Kursk sank in the Barents Sea. All 118 sailors on board died. For now, Padilla hones her life-saving skills in training events such as Bold Monarch — an international submarine rescue exercise held in Spain. Everybody was there – the French, Spanish, Canadian and, for the first time in history, the Russians joined in. “We mated with different subs and pretended patients were in distress that needed medical attention.”

A playful 3-year-old daughter loves to go to grandma’s when Padilla has to go to work. HMI Padilla tells her, “I’m going to be a hero today, so when I come back, I’ll be a mom again.” Her daughter replies, “OK, I want to be Dora today.”

For that anxious sailor trapped thousands of feet underwater, he wants to be a survivor that day. When he steps out of the rescue module, a ray of ‘Sunshine’ will be waiting, offering her welcoming hand.

Next Patriot Profiles: Combat Camera goes underwater documenting explosive ordnance disposal and search and recovery of unaccounted-for World War II service members.