It was July 2007, and the military was still reeling from the Walter Reed Army Medical Center neglect scandal, where wounded soldiers were housed in derelict mice-infested quarters teeming with mold.
The world renowned hospital that catered to Presidents and Generals was now run over by mice and mildew.
“Soldiers Face Neglect at Army’s Top Medical Facility”
Washington Post, Feb 18, 2007
Stories of military medicine as well as the coverage of the detainees in Guantanamo Bay, Cuba from the Early Bird news clips always caught my attention.
I was sitting at my cubicle at the Office of the Secretary of Defense news desk in the Pentagon, responding to an email from the Associated Press about the health and well-being of our wounded warriors, when suddenly my phone started to ring.
“Vice Admiral Adam M. Robinson (Select) would like to meet with you,” said my former shipmate and friend, LT Tony “Navy Blue” Thornton.
My eyes lit up in bewilderment. Was I in deep water?
0800 sharp, the following Monday, I arrived AJ-squared away in my crisp summer whites at the Admiral’s office, wondering if my off-the-record interview with Reuters had been taken out of context.
“Chito, I enjoyed having you serve as my public affairs officer at Bethesda [National Naval Medical Center],” the Admiral stated. “That’s why I would like you to join my staff at Navy Medicine as my special assistant for public affairs.”
“Admiral, first and foremost, congratulations on your selection as Surgeon General. I’m deeply honored that you would consider me to serve as your public affairs officer. But honestly, I don’t feel I qualify for such a high-level position.”
“Why not? You performed well during a time when the hospital was receiving a huge influx of casualties from the front line.”
“Thank you for your kind words and encouragement, sir. But working at one command in Bethesda is vastly different than working with 28 hospitals and over a hundred clinics worldwide — dealing with very tough and complex issues that I have little or no familiarity with.”
“Don’t be foolish, Chito. I have total faith in you. You have, at your fingertips, some of the smartest medical professionals in the military. If you have any questions, any member of my staff would be happy to provide you with the necessary resources.”
I looked straight ahead, shocked but thrilled, and before I could mutter another word, he pressed on.
“When our warriors go into harm’s way, we in Navy Medicine support them.”
The Admiral had a way with words, and I gladly accepted the position. Over the next year, I would prepare many talking points and compose a wide array of speeches. The Surgeon General was a strong proponent of outreach and kept an extremely active speaking agenda, engaging with schools and universities and visiting his medical centers, hospitals, and medical facilities all over the world (Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq, Landstuhl, Germany, Yokosuka, Japan, and GTMO, etc.)
“Combat casualty care is a continuum of care, which begins with the corpsmen in the field, alongside the Marines they are serving with,” the Admiral said. “As our wounded return and begin the healing process, they deserve a seamless and comprehensive approach to their recovery. We want them to mend in body, mind, and spirit. Our focus is multidisciplinary-based care, bringing together medical treatment providers, social workers, case managers, behavioral health providers, and chaplains.”
Admiral Robinson couldn’t be more right about the importance of preparation and research. For each speech I wrote, I spent days in front of the computer typing away and his Chief of Staff, Flag Aide, and I worked closely as a tight-knit team to develop the message. Admiral Robinson would never fault me if I didn’t know the answer — only if I didn’t try my best to find out.
From all the trips we made during our outreach, Admiral Robinson taught me the importance of understanding different types of people. I had to know who to write for to know what to write. I had to understand the demographics, background, education, interests, and issues of every group we contacted. Only after that would we know how to appeal to the target audience.
“Medicine is a common language that all people understand, and it is a way to bridge differences,” he once told me when we were visiting students at Medgar Evers College in Brooklyn, NY.
And by the time I retired from the Navy in October 2009 with 20 years of service, Admiral Robinson had laid the groundwork to help me reach my full potential.