Since becoming director of the VA Maryland Health Care System, Vice Adm. (Ret.) Adam Robinson has focused on staff training and patient care.
Vice Adm. (Ret.) Adam Robinson is a history-maker in the military world, becoming the first African-American surgeon general of the Navy and of any of the military branches in the United States in 2007. But, if life had gone as he as envisioned as a young man growing up in the South, he never would have had a career in the Armed Services.
“If everything had worked out the way I thought it would, I would have been a musician,” said Robinson, who grew up in a musically-inclined family, told the AFRO.
“It’s been the type of life where you don’t know what you don’t know. I never intend to have the military career. It was supposed to be a quick in and out, a drive-by but it was a long drive-by,” the doctor added with a laugh.
Dr. Robinson grew up in Louisville, Ky., the fourth of five children, during a time when the civil rights movement was transforming Black communities and the broader United States.
“Growing up in the U.S. during a time of social change and great awakening within the African-American community and within the U.S. to the fact that the disparities in education, legal rights and in health care were wrong, these things went into play in how I think, what I think and how I’m viewed,” Robinson said.
He decided to make his mark as a physician, following in his father’s footsteps. In 1972, Robinson was among the first cohort of Americans to receive the Armed Forces Health Professions Scholarship Program. The scholarship paid for his medical degree and in return, he would give four years of service to the Navy upon graduation. It seemed like a good deal at the time.
But, by the time he had earned his doctoral degree in medicine from Indiana University School of Medicine—his father’s alma mater—Robinson was having second thoughts about the arrangement.
“I was having a hard time because I didn’t think I was needed in the Navy because the war was over (Vietnam War ended in 1975). I even thought about paying back the money,” Robinson recalled.
“So I approached my superiors and we had a conversation in which I was frank and they were very earnest,” he added with a hearty chuckle. And, in 1977, Robinson was officially commissioned into the Navy.
Robinson’s first assignment was as a general medical officer in a Navy clinic in Puerto Rico. He then reported to the National Naval Medical Center, Bethesda, Md., in 1978 to complete a residency in general surgery. His subsequent duty assignments included: staff surgeon, U.S. Naval Hospital, Yokosuka, Japan, and ship’s surgeon, USS Midway (CV 41).
The experiences began to change his view of a military career.
“I eventually recognized there was no better place to practice than in the military,” he said. “Wherever we went you had a ready-made practice with people to take care of. Everyone recognizes the military’s war efforts, but the military also provides humanitarian assistance and disaster relief.”
In addition, because of the opportunities to travel and see and experience other environments and cultures, Dr. Robinson said his worldview was “stretched” beyond the cultural, social and political activities of Kentucky, where he was born, and Indiana, where he went to school.
“The military gave me an expanded worldview with up-to-date medical techniques so I felt I was in the best of both worlds,” he said.
Robinson’s illustrious 35-year career in the Navy culminated with his being named as the 36th surgeon general of the branch, earning several awards along the way, including: two Distinguished Service Medals, two Legion of Merit awards, two Defense Meritorious Service Medals, three Meritorious Service Medals, and various other service and campaign awards.
“My achievements showed many men and women of color within the Armed Services that they can reach the same goals and positions,” he said. “There were many in the Navy who wrote me and told me that I was their impetus and showed them a way ahead too.”
Since retiring from the Navy, Dr. Robinson continues to attend to the medical needs of the military community. In August 2015, he was named director of the Veteran Affairs Maryland Health Care System, which comprises the Baltimore and Perry Point VA Medical Centers, the Loch Raven VA Community Living & Rehabilitation Center and five community-based outpatient clinics across Maryland.
“One of the first things that struck me is that the patients here are the same sailors, shipmates and Marines that I served with in the Navy,” he said. “To see the men and women I started off with are the people I get to take care of is an honor.”
Since assuming the helm of the VA system in Maryland last August, Robinson said he has focused on the training and development of his staff. The VA administrator has also emphasized the need for stellar patient service.
Robinson said, “I tell my staff, ‘You always say yes to a veteran. Let me say no.’ I want to ensure our veterans feel safe and they are surrounded by men and women who are dedicated to giving them the care they deserve.”
VA health care is challenging, giving the plethora of concerns vets and their families present with—including military-specific concerns such as Agent Orange exposure for Vietnam War vets, Gulf War Syndrome and post-traumatic stress disorder. An aging veteran population means they also have to address age-specific ailments. And, women veterans are now the fastest-growing population of patients, which has forced the administration to become less “man-centric” as it was in the past, and to become more welcoming to women, Robinson said.
“There are a multitude of issues we have to address on a daily basis,” the physician said, “but the key is we have to take care of the whole patient.”