The doors to Camp Lejeune’s hospital opened on May 1, 1943 – and 75 years later, its legacy endures.
The hospital was first named U.S. Naval Hospital New River and was then renamed U.S. Naval Hospital Camp Lejeune. Three decades later, as the needs and size of the base grew, so too did the role of the hospital. In 1975, construction was approved for a new facility off Brewster Boulevard, the site of the present Naval Medical Center Camp Lejeune (NMCCL).
The hospital's 75 years of service were celebrated Tuesday, and NMCCL commanding officer Capt. James Hancock spoke of a diary written by Capt. J.F. Riordan, a contemporary officer during the base’s early days. Riordan wrote of having to beg, borrow and steal to find care for World War II veterans.
"I can’t say it’s exactly the same to not only treat the brave men and women returning from war but to train the corpsmen, nurses and physicians to fight not only this war but any war that our great nation faces in the future," Hancock said, repurposing Riordan's words for the present.
Hancock segued to the morning’s guest speaker, retired Vice Adm. Michael L. Cowan, by reiterating a passage from a speech Cowan delivered to a group of young medical officers in Yuma, including Hancock. Hancock said Cowan told them: “Welcome change, look for the opportunities. If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem.”
The hospital’s front lawn was ringed by sailors standing at full attention, former and present staff, local elected officers and retired leathernecks and squids all gathered in one spot to commemorate 75 years of medical services and care aboard base.
“We are very a-historic,” Cowan said. “We identify problems and take care of them.”
Cowan arrived begrudgingly at the hospital in 1971, but soon found acceptance with his new comrades. Twenty-two years later, he would become commanding officer of the hospital from 1993 to 1996.
“The original hospital still had the smell of wet paint when I was born,” Cowan said. “The only available pain medication back then was aspirin and morphine and there was no air conditioning in the original hospital.”
Cowan spoke of the differences between then and now – when in 1971, they’d take care of a stump on an amputee by letting it scab up and feel they were done with it.
“Fast forward to today and we have all these diagnostics, CAT scans that we take for granted. We take all these advances for granted. We need to take this day to be thankful for living in the time that we are alive,” Cowan said.
Listening intently was retired Sgt. Maj. Paul W. Siverson, a fixture in the Jacksonville community of retired warriors and the veterans outreach program specialist with Vet Center, part of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs. Siverson is a frequent visitor to NMCCL, though not to cure ailments but rather to stay abreast on the ever-changing world of healthcare afforded to veterans and their family members.
“The hospital is phenomenal,” Siverson was quick to say. “We attend the commanding officer’s town hall meetings on a regular basis. They give us updates on health matters.”
Siverson likes that he’s able to get “face time” with the commanding officer during the afternoon gatherings that normally last 45 minutes to an hour.
Former NMCCL Commanding Officer Capt. Richard Welton, who is now retired and living in Swansboro, attended with his wife Kristi. Welton beamed as he looked out the sailors in their white uniforms.
Welton was the executive assistant for the Navy’s Bureau of Medicine and Surgery in Washington, D.C. when he was tapped to become the commanding officer of the hospital in 2003. Welton remained in command until his retirement in 2006.
“This was clearly the pinnacle of my professional career,” Welton exclaimed.
Jacksonville native Angelia Washington grew up as the base matured as well.
Washington’s father served in the U.S. Army, completing three tours in Korea. Washington marveled at the hospital’s ability to “continue the continuity of care for active duty and their dependents when they transfer from state to state or from country to country. Naval Medical Center goes above and beyond,” she said.
Washington read aloud a proclamation on behalf of the City of Jacksonville then presented it to Hancock before an enormous birthday cake was cut.
Referring to the hospital’s proximity to Jacksonville, Hancock said, “The nice thing about this area is we can man the rails. This is for you and all your hard work and dedication.”
Reporter Mike McHugh can be reached at 910-219-8455 or email email@example.com.