MARINE CORPS AIR GROUND COMBAT CENTER TWENTYNINE PALMS, Calif. -- Growing up in a small Pennsylvania town nestled in the Pocono Mountains and dreaming of becoming a doctor, Joe Strauss would have never predicted he would be the lead resident physician at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., during one of the Marine Corps’ bloodiest battles in Iraq.
Now a Navy lieutenant commander and an orthopedic surgeon, dealing with musculoskeletal injuries at the Robert E. Bush Naval Hospital, Strauss said his past experience helping wounded Marines allows him to better serve Marines and Sailors aboard the Combat Center.
“Right when I became the lead for the trauma service is when Fallujah was,” said Strauss about the Battle of Fallujah in Iraq in November 2004. “That was when Bethesda saw the highest volume in its history of patients returning from war. From November until I left in July 2005 we must have treated over 300 Marines with complex upper and lower extremity injuries and fractures.
“Now with Kevlar, more people are surviving and the injuries are the extremities that are exposed,” said the 34-year-old Nesquehoning, Penn., native. “Because of that, over 70 percent of the injuries coming back to us were orthopedic-related.”
Strauss was commissioned a Navy ensign in January 1994 through the Navy Health Professions Scholarship Program. After he graduated from the Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine in 1997 and completed undergraduate work at St. Joseph’s University in Philadelphia, Strauss made his first visit to Bethesda Naval Hospital as an intern for a year.
From there he went on to Naval Air Station Pensacola, Florida, as a flight surgeon before transferring to NAS Willow Grove, Penn., from 1999 to 2001.
“My orthopedic residency at Bethesda began in July 2001,” said Strauss. “When Operation Iraqi Freedom began, we learned a lot about IEDs [improvised explosive devices]. We learned how IEDs work, the different types and things like that.
“These injuries are amazing in the amount of soft tissue and bone abnormalities that can occur with them because it’s just putting shrapnel into a bomb. Nothing has been written like this before in any text book on how you need to manage these patients. It’s really just learning as you go, so to speak, and developing procedures,” he said.
Working with the injured Marines was a source of personal inspiration for Strauss as he constantly saw wounded warriors who wanted nothing more than to get back in the fight.
“The morale of Marines there was very inspiring,” he said. “Marines were still trying to get back despite having severe upper and lower extremity injuries. I think just the motivation that the Marines have is very impressive.”
Helping Marines get back in the fight is still a primary goal for Strauss at Twentynine Palms. Coming from the place where injured Marines came back from war to the place they train prior to deploying is a twist of fate he revels in.
Because of his skills gained from handling those severe cases at Bethesda, Strauss said he feels more prepared to help patients aboard the Combat Center without deferring them to other facilities.
“I think the confidence I gained in dealing with the complex surgeries and developing confidence in your own abilities that you are able to tackle the more challenging cases,” said Strauss. “That has helped me in coming out here, is when there are trauma cases that do occur on this base, we are able to handle them here vice sending them out to another hospital. All the book knowledge isn’t as powerful as the actual surgical experience which helps foster your growth. We are able to manage some of the more complex injuries without referring them elsewhere.”
Strauss’ interest in medicine began early in his youth as he built relationships with local doctors in a town of about 5,000 people.
“I grew up in a really small, rural town where community and family medicine was key,” said Strauss. “I had a good rapport with some of the doctors there and kind of inspired me to go into medicine. Working with them and seeing how one individual can really impact the community had an affect on me.”
During surgeries, Strauss wears his Pittsburgh Steelers head wrap to show support for his favorite team, is a self-proclaimed die-hard sports fan, and even plays basketball for the hospital during the intramural season.
“My career in athletics and my multiple sports-related injuries sort of led me to get into orthopedics,” he said.
Lt. Scott Schoeb, an orthopedic surgeon, said working alongside Strauss at the R.E. Bush Naval Hospital for the past six months has been both rewarding and challenging.
“We have a great working relationship,” said Schoeb, whose orthopedic residency was at a civilian hospital in New York. “Our training and experiences compliment each other well here. It doesn’t always work out this way in the field where people have so many things in common.
“He’s seen a lot more trauma than I have so it’s certainly nice to have him around to do certain procedures,” continued Schoeb about working with Strauss in one of the busiest clinics with over 400 patients seen monthly. “It’s nice for me to have someone who has that experience to help me learn. It helps things get done better and improves patient outcomes.”
Although a possible permanent change of duty station next year may land Strauss at Naval Air Station Jacksonville, Fla., he has mixed feelings about leaving the Marines and his fellow staff at Twentynine Palms.
“I’ve got another year and might be stationed at NAS Jacksonville,” said Strauss. “It’s hard because my 4-year-old-son, Logan, lives in Maine. Being stationed on the east coast next would be good so I can see him more.
“The other side though is that I love working with Marines,” continued Strauss. “There is nothing quite like it. You see how they really take care of their own, and that is great. I just don’t know if I’ll have another opportunity quite like this again. It’s been extremely rewarding.”