By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
WASHINGTON, June 22, 2011 – The Pentagon’s top doctor and health affairs advisor yesterday delivered leadership advice to military doctors-in-training and said he’s impressed by the military medical community’s continual quest for improvement.
Dr. Jonathan Woodson said he’s a firm believer that commanders should set the example and lead from the front. So when he paid a visit yesterday to meet with first-year medical students here at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences, he jumped right in with them and rappelled down a 63-foot wall.
“As a prior commander, I believe it’s always good to get out in the field with the troops,” he said as he tied a Swiss seat climbing harness around his body. “And I think commanders always need to demonstrate to the troops that they are willing to do everything you ask them to do.”
Woodson, who assumed his post as assistant secretary of defense for health affairs Jan. 10, is no stranger to the tactical side of military operations. A brigadier general in the Army Reserve, he served as assistant surgeon general for reserve affairs, force structure and mobilization in the Office of the Surgeon General, and as deputy commander of the Army Reserve Medical Command.
During his confirmation hearing last summer before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Woodson pledged to draw on his vast experience as a military medical officer, health-care administrator, teacher, researcher and physician to tackle the challenges confronting the military health system.
Improving care for wounded troops at home and abroad would be one of Woodson’s highest priorities, he told the panel. “The highlight of my career as a surgeon has been caring for the wounded warrior on the battlefield,” he said.
Mingling among the students who will one day provide that care, Woodson asked about their career aspirations and encouraged them to seek balance in their lives. As they prepared to tackle the rappelling tower – the wall of the university’s administration building – he urged them to consider all their opportunities.
“You have to be willing to take on challenges outside your comfort zone,” he said.
Rappelling isn’t part of most medical school curricula, but as Woodson pointed out to the students, the Uniformed Services University is no ordinary medical school. In addition to all the academics and hands-on education provided at other medical schools, the Defense Department’s only medical school also provides a healthy dose of leadership and operational military training.
Assembling the students, Woodson emphasized the dual roles they will serve as doctors and military officers. “You are going to be trained to be great physicians, but you are also going to be trained to be great leaders,” he said.
The rappelling exercise was part of a week of training before the students kick off Operation Kerkesner, a two-week field training exercise at Fort Indiantown Gap, Pa.
Woodson called the field training a critical part of the students’ education as they prepare to enter an expeditionary U.S. military force. “It’s central to what we do in the military,” he said.
Beyond that, he called field training a valuable way to instill other characteristics the students will need when they reach the field and fleet. “This is a prime laboratory for building leaders, building competency and building skills,” he said.
“Leaders are, primarily, individuals who create a vision for people to follow [and] motivate people to go after that common vision. They solve problems,” he said. “So I am looking for them to be superb physicians and leaders. The world is a dark and dangerous place without good leaders, but there is always a bright future when you have good leadership.”
That leadership is vital as the military continually strives to improve the quality of care it provides on the battlefield, as well as in clinical settings, he said.
“After 10 years of war, we can be very proud of the fact that we have brought a lot of skill and professionalism to the battlefield that has resulted in the lowest died-of-wound rate, the lowest disease and non-battle injury rate [and] the highest survival rates,” he said. “We have gotten so proficient and skilled in certain aspects of medicine… that the military medical community is emulating what we do.”
But Woodson said there’s still progress to be made. “We are a learning organization,” always looking for opportunities to improve, he said. “The whole idea is to understand what you are doing, how you can improve, and how you can improve the art and practice of medicine.”
The Uniformed Services University students will be part of the military medical community that continues to pursue that goal, Woodson noted. Not only will be they force multipliers for the services, he said, but their expertise will make them a valuable resource for the nation as a whole.
“So it is very important that we do this right – that we train them right, we develop their skills and competences as they go along,” he said.
Before returning to his Pentagon office, Woodson urged the students to seek him out as they advance through their university training and their military careers.
“Although they stick me away at that desk at the Pentagon, remember, I am here for you,” he said. “So if you want to come by and visit me, pick my brain about things, feel free. Because if I don’t serve your needs, I have no business being there.”