U.S. 7th Fleet Surgeon Capt. Joel Roos poses for a photo. (U.S. Navy photo)

A Tale of Two Surgeons: Capt. Joel A. Roos

Different Lenses

Medical Cross - Red

For Navy doctor Joel Roos, experience teaches what you like as well as what you don’t. But all of it build confidence and leadership abilities.

In another life, U.S. Navy Capt. Joel A. Roos, BU ’09, might have enjoyed quietly peering through a microscope in an Ivy League university. His initial goal, he recalls, was to study for a doctorate in molecular biology or genetics. There was one problem: “As soon as I started bench-top research, I realized I didn’t like it,” he says, smiling at the memory. So he opted for medical school, instead. “I think it has turned out pretty well.”

That is the first of several understatements. As 7th Fleet surgeon from 2014 to 2016, Roos, 54, was the U.S. Navy’s senior medical officer in the Western Pacific. Based in Yokosuka, Japan, the fleet surgeon is responsible for medical care for U.S. personnel from India to the International Date Line. The 7th is the largest of the forward-deployed U.S. fleets, with 60 to 70 ships, 300 aircraft and 40,000 Navy and Marine Corps personnel, and it is part of the U.S. Pacific Fleet in Honolulu. While Roos was with the Seventh, another Brenau graduate, Capt. Chris Culp, BU ’14, was the Pacific Fleet surgeon.

Capt. Joel A. Roos leads a training session at Naval Medical Center San Diego. (U.S. Navy photo)
Capt. Joel A. Roos leads a training session at Naval Medical Center San Diego. (U.S. Navy photo)

This year Roos begins running the Naval Medical Center in San Diego, one of the largest military hospitals in the world. Some tip him for promotion to rear admiral.

Capt. Roos, an emergency medicine specialist, did his medical degree at the University of Cincinnati on a military scholarship, followed by assignments in California at Oakland Naval Hospital and a residency in the San Diego center. As he describes, he joined the Navy “on a whim” and thought he would do his payback tour, then get out. Thirty years on, he is set to command the hospital he attended as a medical student.

“Once I went into medicine, I found I really enjoyed teaching,” he explains. The Navy gave him opportunities he found irresistible. In 2007, he began running the Naval Medical Center in Portsmouth – a job “nobody wanted,” he recalls. “It was a very broken department with very low morale. It was a job for someone more senior; I got it early in my career. I really enjoyed it, but I also fixed the department and found out that I’m pretty good at leadership and management.”

Portsmouth was a big, complex operation: Roos was responsible for a budget of $76 million and primary care operations to over 100,000 people in seven military and civilian clinics, along with a hospital department. “I realized I needed more tools in my skills toolbox,” he says. That led him to seek out Brenau’s M.B.A. in health care management.

What he expected, he explains, was to learn more about spreadsheets and accounting. He was surprised to also find components on organizational behavior and leadership development. “I’ve probably found that most useful. The M.B.A. gives you a whole different set of lenses to view what you’re doing.”

“The economics and administration of this job have evolved,” he continues. “You can either be involved in the change or be changed. Medical care has gotten so expensive that we’ve been forced to optimize like everyone else. We have to control costs. I’m never going to be an accountant, but now I understand what the accountants are telling me and how to think strategically as part of an organization.”

A deeper motivation than money

The child of successful white-collar European immigrants, Roos admits his parents were not overjoyed at the prospect of a military career for their son. Still, he was tapping into a family history: His Jewish grandfather was a member of the wartime Dutch underground against the Nazis. Another relative fought in the Israeli war of independence. “My mother’s parents got married in the late 1930s in Berlin,” he says, “and hopped straight on a train out of the city.”

His own first brush with war was a six-month deployment in 2004 to Kuwait, as part of the Desert Shield operation in nearby Iraq. At Camp Wolverine, he ran a 12-bed facility, treating wounded warriors from the Iraqi theater. The position put him in charge of the morgue, signing off on deaths. “I still very vividly remember the first one in the middle of the night, in the first week or so. It was putting a man in a uniform into a body bag. It was my wakeup call. I wasn’t in Kansas anymore.”

“I’ve had patients die – it wasn’t the death,” he explains. “It was that he was from the battlefield.” The Navy, he insists, spends a lot of time trying to avoid war, working on what is called “theater security cooperation” with other nations such as China, essentially to create allies and prevent the outbreak of hostilities. Still, he adds, if he were called to the battlefield again, he would go. “I could have gotten out of the Navy a long time ago. It’s part of the mission we accept.”

One reason he stays, he says, is the “unparalleled” quality of people in the Navy, the camaraderie and mutual respect. And there’s a deeper motivation. “My father came to America penniless. So I feel I owe the country something. If I was after money, I’d have gotten out a long time ago.”

Roos as fleet surgeon oversees Navy humanitarian activities in the Pacific rim, often working with counterparts in other nations' armed forces.
Roos as fleet surgeon oversees Navy humanitarian activities in the Pacific rim, often working with counterparts in other nations’ armed forces.

Roos is clearly happier, though, making friends than fighting enemies. His Pacific deployment has taken him to Sri Lanka, China, India and Vietnam, where, he says, “it’s really hard to imagine we were at war 40 years ago.” Much of the fleet’s work involves riding to the rescue after natural disasters. It was intimately involved in the aftermath of the March 11, 2011 earthquake and tsunami in Japan and the Indian Ocean tsunami of 2004.

“Medicine goes across most barriers,” he says. “You might not be able to get two officers to sit together, but you can get two medical officers together because that’s about saving lives. So we have the ability to make friends and influence people – for want of a better term – easier than anyone else.”

One of the lesser-known aspects of military medicine is the care of broken minds, rather than broken bodies. Army suicides in 2012 averaged nearly one per day – far exceeding battlefield deaths. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs says thousands of veterans now kill themselves every year. Most of the victims have not even seen combat.

Roos has his own views on these startling statistics. “This generation reacts differently to failure than ours. To some degree, in the United States, we have removed lots of obstacles from our children; you’re not allowed to fail at sports when you’re young. So your first failure comes at college or your first job, and I’m not sure people know how to deal with it.”

His own stake in this grim discussion is partly personal: One of his two sons recently joined the military. “When I applied in 1989, the idea of going to war was hypothetical. The generation that I serve now knows we’re at war. My son joined the Army when we were at war. We are recruiting people willingly, knowing we are in a dynamic time and involved in operations around the globe.

“I was born too early for the Vietnam War, so I wonder what I would have done if I’d been drafted – would I have still taken a military scholarship? I have no idea. But it does make me wonder.”

Importance of leadership

At San Diego, he will be in charge of another sprawling operation: about 6,000 employees in a center with 10 clinics and a big teaching hospital. It is, he points out, the main treatment and rehabilitation center for head injuries and amputees, the signature injury of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, largely due to the improvised explosive devices that have tormented U.S. troops: IEDs have killed more than 3,000 people and wounded more than 33,000.

It’s a big challenge. However, one of the benefits of getting older and picking up more skills, he says, is that confidence grows. The Brenau degree taught him that there are two kinds of leadership: charismatic and positional. “Those were new concepts to me.” Charismatic leadership cannot be taught; some people – Roos cites both Hitler and his polar opposite Churchill – have that “innate ability to rally people to their cause.”

“Positional leadership means you have power by virtue of being in that position, and people follow you not necessarily because they’re willing to. In the military we see examples of poor leadership and great leadership all the time. So, understanding those differences is very important.”

The implication seems to be that he has grown into his leadership role. It’s a surprise, he admits, to be not only in the same organization after all these years but helping to run it. “My father used to say I couldn’t stick to anything,” he says, smiling again. He considers his greatest achievement, however, not his own staying power but the people he will leave behind when he retires.

“I’ve watched the people who I helped get into the Navy or trained as medical students go on to successful careers,” says Roos. “That’s the most gratifying.” As for his own future, he says he will work until he’s told to stop. “The only thing I was told as a child was that whatever you do, do it to the best of your ability. That’s what I’ve tried to do.”

There he goes with another of those understatements.

Dr. David McNeill is a professor and freelance writer for The Economist, The Chronicle of Higher Education and other publications. He lives in Tokyo.

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