It was July 2007, the military was still reeling from the Walter Reed Army Medical Center neglect scandal where wounded soldiers were housed in derelict quarters that were mice infested and teeming in mold.
“Soldiers Face Neglect at Army’s Top Medical Facility”
Washington Post, Feb 18, 2007
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 came to life.
“Vice Admiral Robinson (Select) would like to meet with you,” said my former shipmate and friend, LT Tony “Navy Blue” Thornton.
I was astounded and anxious – was I in deep water?
The very next morning, I arrived in my crisp, summer whites in front of the Admiral’s office at 0800 sharp, 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 frankly sir, I don’t feel that 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 all over the world — 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 answer, he said.
“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 a ton of 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. In order to know what to write, I had to know who to write for. I had to understand the demographics, background, education, interests and issues of every single group we reached out to. 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.
I applied for my GI Bill benefits and studied at the George Washington University school of business. Conveniently, the Foggy Bottom campus was located down the road from Admiral Robinson’s office at Navy Medicine — just a stone’s throw from the Lincoln Memorial.
I enrolled in the Executive MBA program, and before the semester started, our cohort of 20 eager students embarked on a five-day retreat at the Homestead Resort in Hot Springs, VA.
We were attending sessions that didn’t require PowerPoint or pointers, but still had everything to do with leadership development. Because the truth is, you can’t learn management from just inside a classroom.
After spending two days engaged in team-building exercises and thought-provoking discussions, we were ready to get some fresh air. The next morning, we hiked down the Allegheny Mountain gorge trail, through the thick forest, past the lovely cascade falls until we arrived in the middle of a grassy field with a gigantic wall affectionately known as the Tower. At first glance, the 40-foot Tower seemed daunting and insurmountable.
Throughout life, we face many obstacles both personal and professional. The key to responding to these roadblocks is to face them head-on and to rely on the support from others around you. This is teamwork — being supported and supporting each other. To work as a team, it’s imperative to understand each other’s strengths and weaknesses, both physically and mentally. The better we know one another, the better we’re able to assist each other.
The Ropes Course is a metaphor for problem-solving — it challenges us to face our fears and climb on. The higher you climb, the more you rely on your team for support.
The first task was to have each person assist their team members in donning their harnesses — the one crucial piece of equipment that would ensure our safety and protection.
Then each three-member team ascended in tandem facing the challenge of not having enough steps for all three to ascend at the same time. Sometimes a climber would have to take a step down in order for another climber to proceed ahead. That was ok, as long as they all reached their final goal together.
Meanwhile the team below coached the three climbers on where to place their feet and hands so that they could ascend to the top and descend to the ground together.
Meanwhile, the rope handlers kept a close eye on the climbers, coaching them with support and encouragement so that the 3-member team could ascend up to the top together and then work in coordination to bring the crew back home.
When it was my turn to go, my teammates were Senodja Walker and Amir Moore.
Rope team: “Senodja, place the right hand on the block and your left foot on the step.”
“Amir, move your right foot off the step and place in on the block so that Senodja can place her foot on it.”
As the climbers moved up the wall and then back down, the Belay teams were tasked to remove the slack by paying out or pulling in the excess line. They kept a close eye and a taut line, but they were not allowed to pull the crew up the wall — the climbers had to figure this out on their own.
Climbers: “Slack!” (pay out a little rope.)
Belayers: pays out the rope and pauses to see if climbers ask again.
Climbers: “Up rope.” (pull in rope slack.)
Belayers: pulls in rope and pause to see if climbers ask again.
Eventually, all of us made it over the wall and back down, taking one step at a time. The journey in life is rarely simplistic and straightforward. If we keep striving, we will eventually reach our goals, even if we have to climb over life’s challenges, obstacles, and setbacks.