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Failing Retirement, Changing Lives
Dubbed the “man of many professions” by the New York Times prior to his unanimous U.S. Senate confirmation as the 17th Surgeon General of the United States in 2002, Vice Admiral Richard H. Carmona, M.D., M.P.H., F.A.C.S.— an alumnus of National Medical Fellowships (NMF)—has lived many different lives over seven decades, all of which engaged him in public service.
“Leadership is understanding how you are responsible for the destiny of others,” Carmona said.
Carmona was the eldest of four, born in Harlem in 1949 to Puerto Rican emigrant parents.
“My father was a World War II Army combat veteran. He was a kind, good man but often disassociated from fatherly duties. My mother was amazing, alone, and lonely most of the time but relentless in her pursuit of knowledge and caring for and empowering her children. And I am my mother’s son.”
Carmona recalled that although his mother worked nights, she taught him and his siblings about democracy and the world in multiple languages throughout the day, holding court at a table beneath a single exposed lightbulb in a roach-infested, unhealthy tenement apartment.
“She’d say, ‘You have to learn about other cultures if you want to be successful,’” Carmona said. “‘You need an education because that’s one thing they can’t take away from you, and you need it to be a leader.’
“She understood discrimination, injustice, inequality and was trying to teach her kids about the world they lived in,” he said. “She said the world would be a safer, healthier, and more secure place when women had an equal seat at the table of leadership, but until then, it would be tougher. She also acknowledged the challenge of being ethnically and culturally different but said, ‘We’d have to work harder to show people we earned the right to make decisions and lead.’”
Though he credits her now for his successful career and fatherhood, Carmona said it took him years to take his mother’s lessons to heart, and, as he has aged, his mother’s advice has begun to seem smarter.
Carmona skipped school to work in a mailroom or to sell hot dogs and peanuts at Yankee and Shea stadiums. When he wasn’t working, he’d read about science and medicine at libraries but wouldn’t academically pursue these interests.
“I was a truant,” he said. “Growing up in our ‘hood’ was more about survival than it was worrying about finishing school or a future career.”
Then he met a local U.S. Army Green Beret home on leave.
“He made me realize there was no way out of here unless I pulled myself out, otherwise you will be another sad statistic,” Carmona said. Of note, this advice mirrored what his mother and grandmother (“abuela”) also told him repeatedly.
Carmona dropped out of school but eventually joined the U.S. Army at the age of 17 based on his conversations with the Green Beret and because his father was a World War II combat veteran in the Army.
“It completely changed my life,” he said. “Because the only easy day was yesterday. The Army gave me purpose and taught me responsibility, accountability, and how to complete a mission.”
Carmona served as a U.S. Army Special Forces combat-decorated medic and weapons specialist in Vietnam. He also passed his Army General Educational Development (GED) test and later returned home to attend the City University of New York (CUNY) Bronx Community College in an open-enrollment program for combat veterans. He then went on to the University of California, San Francisco, to earn his undergraduate and medical school degrees where he graduated with honors at the top of his class.
“I never planned for academic distinction, for no one in my family had ever graduated from high school, but given this extraordinary opportunity, I thrived and was inadvertently able to send a message of hope to others with similar challenged backgrounds,” he said.
Carmona served as an ocean lifeguard, paramedic, and registered nurse while in college. Upon completion of medical school and his surgical residency, he completed a fellowship in trauma, burns, and critical care sponsored by the National Institutes of Health, and he then became the founding director of Arizona’s first certified regional level-one trauma care system and a university professor.
Carmona also served as chairman of Arizona’s Southern Regional Emergency Medical System; spent nearly four decades with the Pima County Sheriff’s Department as a department surgeon, highly decorated deputy sheriff, and SWAT team leader; and ultimately earned his master’s degree in public health with honors from the University of Arizona before accepting his presidential nomination as U.S. Surgeon General, where he was confirmed unanimously by the U. S. Senate. As surgeon general, he focused on community health, prevention, emergency preparedness, and health disparities.
“My parents were both smokers, had alcohol problems, and died prematurely from preventable causes,” he said. His childhood experiences informed a great deal of his work as surgeon general to include the landmark Surgeon General’s report on secondhand smoke and many other official communications.
At the end of his statutory four-year term as United States Surgeon General, Carmona
then returned to academics in 2006 to become a distinguished professor at the University of Arizona and Ohio State University, vice chairman of Canyon Ranch, and president of the Canyon Ranch Institute, the non-profit research arm of the renowned wellness center. Over the years, he continued to work with local, state, and federal governments as well as becoming a director of several large corporate boards. When COVID-19 struck, he was pulled back into government to serve as the Arizona governor’s COVID-19 senior policy advisor and the University of Arizona incident commander.
Early in the pandemic, he noticed that people of color and the poor were dying sooner.
It also became evident that the minority population, often invisible while harvesting our food or working in low-paying jobs, were indeed “essential employees.”
“The injustices simply became more exposed.”
“Now is certainly not the time to stop working or retire; the ‘mission’ continues,” Carmona said.
“In Special Forces, we had a saying: ‘The only easy day was yesterday, and if this was easy, everyone would be doing it!’”
“Salvation is in the education of our youth,” he said. “And it’s a leader’s responsibility to ensure continuation—and improvement—of the path they’ve walked themselves.”