WASHINGTON — More than 50 years ago, former Surgeon General Ronald Blanck received a harrowing introduction to the Army.
Then a young military physician, he deployed to the central highlands of Vietnam in September 1968, treating Soldiers on the front lines.
Blanck, like many of his peers at the time, volunteered for the mission in the days before the U.S. military began drafting young men to serve in the Vietnam War. During the conflict, Blanck focused primarily on preventative care: immunizations and vaccinations.
“Vietnam kind of shaped my view of the military,” said Blanck, 81. “That loyalty, selfless service … it really meshed with the way I wanted to practice medicine.”
For 14 months Blanck treated Soldiers, sometimes tending to the wounded in the field in the Vietnamese towns of An Khê and Buôn Ma Thuột. He often had to adapt to the challenges of the environment.
Blanck, one of the first doctors of osteopathic medicine to serve in the Army, recalled one instance when members of a firing battery became ill from drinking contaminated water. He built a makeshift medical bay in the dining facility, setting up beds and inserting IVs into the arms of the Soldiers. He also treated the Vietnamese people for bubonic plague.
After Vietnam, Blanck completed his medical residency, that included time researching tropical diseases in Malaysia. Now board certified in internal medicine, Blanck decided in 1973 that he wanted to make the Army a career.
In the three decades that followed, the native of Ephrata, Pennsylvania would rise to numerous leadership positions including commanding Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and eventually becoming the Army’s 39th Surgeon General from 1996-2000.
Blanck, who retired as a lieutenant general in 2000, recently reflected on the evolution of the Army Medical Corps, which celebrated its 248th anniversary Thursday. He said that the Corps has shifted from a physician-centric focus to an emphasis on the collective efforts of the nurses, medical technicians, pharmacists and social workers. The Army Medical Corps includes 4,000 physicians that specialize in various disciplines in clinical, research and operational medicine.
“The physician is critical to most of the care provided, but does so now as a contributing part of the team, listening to others in the team, and together coming up with the best solution for a patient,” Blanck said. “That's the evolution going from a medical corps being physician centric to now much more of a team effort. Someone once told me, medical care today is a team sport.”
While the Army’s Medical Corps and military medicine cover trauma, orthopedics, and intensive care, one aspect of its services often gets overlooked. Blanck said preventative care, like the services Blanck provided to Soldiers in Vietnam, plays a critical role in disease prevention.
“Trying to keep Soldiers … healthy to fight is the first and foremost and part of our job,” he said. “And it’s to take care of those who are injured or wounded. So it’s evolved into something that really takes all of use working together.”
At Walter Reed, one of the nation’s largest military medical facilities, Blanck founded a Gulf War veteran’s treatment center built in 1993 specifically to treat Gulf War Syndrome, an unknown illness that causes muscle and joint pain, dizziness and memory lapses. The facility later became a deployment health center.
“We would work with people and say, ‘Hey, we know you're sick; we acknowledge it; we don't know what it is. Now, let us help you deal with your symptoms, pass the PT test,” Blanck said. “That was a monumental effort and meant a lot of people could continue to function instead of having depression, sitting at home or being discharged from the military.”
Blanck became the first assistant dean of students at Bethesda’s Uniformed Services University, an institution chartered by Congress, and he also held teaching positions at Georgetown, George Washington and the Howard School of Medicine.
As chief of Army Medicine at Brooke Army Medical Center at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, where each of the medical residents he trained successfully passed their board exams. In addition to serving as a resident at Walter Reed, Blanck also commanded both the U.S. Army Berlin Hospital and the Frankfurt Army Regional Medical Center.
After his appointment as the Army’s highest ranking medical officer, Blanck instituted changes that still influence Army medicine today. He made education and medical training a higher priority and assured that qualified physicians and doctors were appointed to critical positions in the field. During Operations Enduring and Iraqi Freedom, the Army saw even greater emphasis on readiness and training.
Blanck redefined the area of responsibility of the Office of the Surgeon General and opened the position to more career fields, allowing nurses and others the opportunity to eventually serve as surgeons general. In 2012, then-Lt. Gen. Patricia Horoho became the first nurse and first woman to serve as surgeon general.
Blanck also started what would become an eight-year process for the then 91B combat medics to become 68W combat medic specialists, resulting in better trained and highly skilled medics. Under the new military occupational specialty, all 68W medics qualify as emergency medical technicians and received training in advanced airway skills. Combat medic specialists now must recertify every two years to keep themselves MOS-qualified.
Retired Army Medical Command Sgt. Maj. Walt Scott said Blanck created a welcome workplace during his time as surgeon general. Blanck approved an enlisted master’s program, allowing senior non-commissioned officers the opportunity to attend graduate school.
“Lt. Gen. Blanck is a leader that was always forward-thinking, approachable, has a wildly great sense of humor, and [was] a professional that always has time for you,” Scott wrote. “Lt. Gen. Blanck created an environment where Soldiers and employees would run to him, not away.”
Blanck closed some hospitals while retaining the same number of staff, he said. Blanck added more medical personnel to larger hospitals including what is now Fort Liberty, North Carolina and Fort Moore, Georgia.
“We were running hospitals where they should have been clinics, and we were running clinics where there was no justification for having … care available,” Blanck said. “So I closed some hospitals, downsized some others, not people, I kept the same number of people.”
“You need to have patients coming into our facilities for us to take care of them, which is how we stay current; how we continue to practice and [be] ready for deployment,” he said. “And if you don't have those patients, then you're not training for deployment. You're not emphasizing readiness.”
During his tenure as Army surgeon general, Blanck worked closely with the surgeons general of the Navy and the Air Force and the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs to establish lifetime TRICARE for veterans, including those over 65.
Blanck said that he remains against reductions in military medical care. He said cutting services at Army and military hospitals and treatment centers has sometimes sent patients to civilian care. Patients should be brought back to the direct care system, Blanck added.
Since 2009, Blanck has served as chairman of Martin, Blanck and Associates, whose offices sits on the south side of the District of Columbia suburb, Alexandria, Virginia. The company provides assistance to firms in federal, state and nonprofit sectors and has an expertise in federal healthcare systems and policy.
Although he retired from the Army 23 years ago, Blanck still has kept his medical license for five decades and occasionally will take appointments at clinics.
And sometimes, he makes house calls.