JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas (May 12, 2021) – With friends, family and a host of former bosses cheering her on, Brooke Army Medical Center dedicated its fourth floor auditorium to Carolyn D. Putnam, the hospital’s longest-serving government civilian, during a ceremony May 11.
The 85-year-old commander’s secretary has been a civil servant for 66 years, with 61 of those years at BAMC.
“Ms. Putnam embodies the character and dedication of the very best our nation has to offer, and is a shining example to all Americans,” wrote John E. Whitely, acting Secretary of the Army, in his dedication approval memo. “She has earned a place of honor in U.S. Army history.”
The surprise ceremony caught the normally stalwart secretary off guard. Along with 17 of her colleagues, Putnam had been called to the auditorium that morning to accept a Lifetime of Service award, a new BAMC recognition honoring government civilians with 45-plus years of service. After the last certificate was handed out, leaders called Putnam and her son, Chip, back to the stage. She was visibly shocked as they unveiled the ornate dedication plaque.
Speechless at first, Putnam soon rallied for the crowd.
“I feel so privileged, so honored,” she said as tears filled her eyes. “The best part of my career has been the 61 years I’ve spent at BAMC.”
Four of Putnam’s former bosses attended the event and six sent in video messages. In total, as commander’s secretary, Putnam has worked for 17 generals and nine colonels.
“Ms. Putnam is the epitome of a civil servant,” said Maj. Gen. George Appenzeller, assistant director for combat support, Defense Health Agency. “She is a civil servant who has spent her entire life taking care of others and those folks who put their lives on the line for the rest of us.”
Maj. Eileen Cassidy, chief, Business Operations Division, initiated the approval process, which took over a year and required signatures at four levels of command.
“When the Secretary of the Army approved this dedication, I hoped that Ms. Putnam, and all civilians within BAMC and across the Military Health System, would know how deeply we all value their service and sacrifice,” she said. “We are so grateful to the leaders at all levels who recognized Ms. Putnam’s incredible contributions over the past six decades.”
THE EARLY YEARS
Putnam was 10 years old when she started her long association with BAMC. It was 1945 and World War II was nearing its end. Her sister, who had caught malaria while serving in the Philippines, was hospitalized at the then-Brooke General Hospital. Putnam was eager to check on her hero big sister; however, "back then you couldn't visit family unless you were 12, so the nurses sneaked me up the main hospital stairs so I could see her," she recalled with a laugh.
That sister, Lillian Dunlap, went on to become a brigadier general and the 14th chief of the Army Nurse Corps, Putnam noted proudly.
As a student at Incarnate Word High School, Putnam found she had a knack for typing and shorthand and set her sights on secretarial work. After graduation in 1953, she took the civil service test and scored a job-- a clerk/typist in the Finance and Accounting Office at Lackland Air Force Base. She stayed there for five years, moving up to become a military pay clerk in the Officer Pay Section in 1954.
BAMC LEGACY BEGINS
It was in 1960 that Putnam's 61-year BAMC legacy began.
After an 18-month hiatus to care for her newborn son, Chip, she accepted a clerk-typist job in the Department of Surgery at Brooke General Hospital. Over the next decade, she served in various positions in the General Surgery Service and became secretary to the chief and assistant chief, Thoracic-Cardiovascular Surgery Service, in 1964.
In the '70s, Putnam continued to rise up the ranks. During the Vietnam era, BAMC swelled up to 1,000 beds to care for the wounded, and she saw a constant influx of drafted Vietnam-era doctors.
Putnam crossed paths with a few high-profile guests at that time, including President Lyndon Johnson, who would stop by for checkups when staying at his Texas White House ranch near Stonewall, and movie legend John Wayne, who would visit burn patients. When Wayne came, the staff gathered at the main hospital's lobby to greet the star. "I swear he looked right at me and said, 'Howdy," she said with a grin. "Of course, all of the ladies fell out right on the spot."
With years of hospital-wide experience under her belt, Putnam felt ready to tackle the pinnacle of her career. On Dec. 27, 1981, she became secretary-stenographer for BAMC Commander Brig. Gen. Tracy E. Strevey Jr.
"I was scared to death," she recalled. "But I was blessed and fortunate to have help from many people."
In 1996, with Brig. Gen. Robert Claypool now in command, Putnam joined the staff in the new 450-bed BAMC hospital building. Up until then, the hospital had been scattered in buildings throughout Fort Sam Houston.
"That was an exciting time," Putnam said. "Many commanders had fought hard to get this beautiful new building. It was very special to finally all be housed under the same roof."
HERE TO STAY
Other opportunities cropped up over the years, but Putnam dismissed them all without a second thought. "I could never leave BAMC," she said with tears in her eyes. "I love my job, the people, the sense of patriotism, being around the wounded service members and other patients … I've always been happy here. Every single day, no matter how small the task, I feel a sense of contribution and reward."
After over six decades of service, Putnam said it’s surreal to now have an auditorium named in her honor.
During the ceremony, Putnam recalled driving down Interstate Highway 35 years ago with her then-young son and his friend in the backseat.
“Chip would point at the old main post hospital and tell his friend, ‘That’s mommy’s hospital,’” she said. “And now, I don’t just have a hospital, I have an auditorium. I am so honored and so grateful.
"From the bosses to my co-workers to staff throughout the hospital, I've loved every minute of my time at BAMC,” she added. “This place is a part of me."