JACKSONVILLE, Fla. — In the spring of 2011, Miami native Noel Martinez found himself on a small craft in the middle of the night headed for a pirate "mother ship" off the coast of Somalia.
As a Navy independent duty corpsman (IDC), situations like that are not uncommon.
The enlisted corpsmen serve as the senior medical providers for cruisers, destroyers and frigates, as well as many isolated ground units.
"If we deploy with a SEAL team, we're the medical asset for that team," Martinez said. "The IDC program itself is designed to put us into these places independently so we can function away from a doctor or medical officer.
"We go through a school where they cram almost four years of medical school into 13 months."
The Navy created the position in 1944 when it found a need for medical personnel in places where no medical officer or medical facility was present.
They are critical to the ships and the units they serve.
"The ship relies on him and, in fact, the ship can't even get underway unless he's onboard," said Petty Officer 1st Class Richard Spees, also an IDC. "He's the go-to guy."
While not deployed, IDCs serve in much the same role as a physician's assistant, seeing active duty patients at Navy hospitals with a caseload of about 500 patients.
Currently, 1,374 IDCs serve in the Navy, said. Lt. David Bennett, U.S. Navy public affairs officer.
When the call comes however, they go where they're needed.
For Martinez, it was the Mayport-based frigate USS Halyburton.
Aboard the ship, he had a front-row seat during the Maersk Alabama incident in 2009 that ended when NavySEAL snipers shot and killed three of the Somali pirates who were holding the Alabama's Capt. Richard Phillips hostage on one of the ship's lifeboats.
Two years later, Martinez and the Halyburton were again off the coast of Somalia when the ship began pursuing a large pirate ship with hostages on board.
"The pirates on that ship had tried to board another ship that day and got shot up real bad and the head pirate's son was one of the ones that was critically injured," he said. "Piracy was up pretty high at that point and I guess they tried to board a civilian ship and that ship had a security detachment onboard who handled their business.
"So we got bridge-to-bridge radio communication with them — we had a translator on board — and he said that if you can treat my son, take care of his medical wounds, I'll release the hostages."
As the Halyburton's IDC, the task of trying to save the pirate's son fell squarely on Martinez's shoulders. He and about a dozen other sailors boarded one of the frigate's smaller crafts and headed off into the darkness on tossing, 6-foot seas.
"All we could see . were the lights from the ship and some of their guys scurrying around with rifles," he said. "I thought, we're going to go out here and they're going to detonate this thing and just take us out, but that didn't happen."
The pirates sent out a small boat carrying a driver and the wounded son of the top pirate.
But what greeted Martinez when he stepped aboard the pirates' craft was a far different situation from what he'd been told. "They just said he had a couple of broken bones," Martinez said. "Well, when I showed up, he had multiple gunshot wounds, multiple broken bones and he was pretty much on his way out."
He went to work on the young pirate, but the high seas made it impossible to do much. The decision was made to take the man back to the Halyburton, where Martinez and a group of sailors he'd trained in the basics went to work.
"We worked on him for about 2 ½ hours," he said. "We did CPR, we did everything we could do to keep this guy alive.
"It was just an event that the whole crew helped out with, it wasn't just me, but he ended up passing away."
Immediately, the sailors' thoughts turned to the hostages, and Martinez expected the worst.
"That's part of the reason why we tried to treat his body with as much respect as we could," he said. "We wanted to get the body back in the condition we would hope for if it was one of our family members.
"We even circled around him and said a prayer over him."
The team put clean bandages on the body and dressed him in all white with clothes that sailors donated for the cause.
"We covered him, put him in a body bag and sent him back over," he said. "The head pirate was so pleased by the respect we showed the body that he released the hostages anyway.
"So even though his son passed away, he allowed the hostages to be released and we got them onboard."
The hostages, some Thai, others Filipino, spent the next few weeks aboard the Halyburton.
"I ended up treating a bunch of them for different things, between dental and all kinds of stuff they hadn't had for so long," he said. "So that was a rewarding experience."
In his current role as senior enlisted leader for Directorate of Medical Services at Jacksonville Naval Hospital, the 16-year Navy veteran is helping to train the next generation of IDCs.
However, he'll soon be on his way to Spain as the IDC for the destroyer USS Carney when it moves there this year.
"Whatever the Navy decides, that's where I'll go," Martinez said.