Former Navy Surgeon General Donald Hagen chats with North Dakota Medicine about Vietnam, growing up in North Dakota, and caring for three American Presidents.
Never one to miss a chance to promote his own Commonwealth in front of a room full of colleagues, Owen Pickett, former representative of Virginia’s maritime second district, took the floor in the House of Representatives on Capitol Hill one morning in June 1995.
“Mr. Speaker, I rise today to recognize and honor a truly outstanding naval officer and physician, Vice Admiral Donald F. Hagen, for his devoted and distinguished service,” Pickett preached in a speech recorded by the Congressional Record in one of UND’s proudest moments. “It is a privilege for me to recognize his many outstanding achievements and commend him for the superb service he has provided to the Department of the Navy and to our great Nation as a whole.”
Pretty high praise for a guy from Fortuna, N.D.
High Praise, low profile
Although most of the men and women serving in the United States Navy today have probably never heard the name Donald F. Hagen, MD, the institution they’ve dedicated themselves to, as Pickett suggested, would not be what it is without him.
Of course, such a statement sounds too self-important to the Nodak-born Hagen, who graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Medicine degree from the UND School of Medicine & Health Sciences in 1961.
“Hopefully you can delete 90 percent of what I just told you,” the former Surgeon General of the Navy told North Dakota Medicine with a chuckle over the phone from his home in Florida.
But the facts speak for themselves: much improved medical education for naval officers, more gender-balanced crews at sea, a deployable hospital system that literally saves lives on the battlefront, and an insurance system still used by most active duty soldiers, retirees, and their dependents.
All of this and more occurred under Hagen’s watch.
“The Inspector General of the Navy, the Assistant Secretary of the Navy, and I and a few other people were in my office,” Hagen continued, describing the origin of the Pentagon’s Tricare insurance program in the 1990s. “We were trying to figure out what to do about health care costs and delivering care. So we decided to propose a new option with three levels of care. We brought it to the Army and Air Force, discussed it with them, and it became a Defense Department project. But the concept started in that office.”
Around the same time that he was helping provide more comprehensive health care for veterans and their dependents, Hagen made it part of his mission to make the Navy fully co-educational.
“When I began [as Surgeon General], women were not able to be assigned duty on combat ships at sea,” Hagen said, explaining how without maritime combat experience, female naval officers had very limited opportunities for promotion within the institution. Since such a scenario was obviously unfair, “we decided women should be allowed to be assigned to those ships.”
Oh—and he worked with the Navy to eliminate smoking on all naval vessels, greatly improving the general health of the servicemen and servicewomen under his care, and played a key role in the provision of care for the health of three Presidents.
All in a day’s work for Hagen.
Still, many of the more compelling parts of the physician’s biography went unsaid in Pickett’s short speech.
When he was a teenager, Hagen’s parents sent him to live with an aunt and uncle in Williston, N.D.—where his family still farms—so that he could attend high school there. After earning a Bachelor of Arts degree from Concordia College in Moorhead, Minn., Hagen went on to the UND School of
Medicine & Health Sciences and earned a BS Med degree. He then migrated to Northwestern University, where he received his medical doctorate in 1963.
“As a kid from North Dakota, I guess I’d always imagined being somewhere with tropical islands,” Hagen explained of his decision to follow his uncle in joining the Navy. “I loved it immediately.”
Then came Vietnam.
By the mid-1960s, Hagen found himself serving as a battalion surgeon for the Marines in Chu Lai, Vietnam, and as a general medical officer for the Marine Corps Fleet Force in Hawaii.
“One day [in Hawaii], a hospital ship came to port and I got to be on it and thought, ‘Wow,’” Hagen recalled. “So I decided to stay in the Navy and be on a hospital ship because it was absolutely beautiful.”
Accepting a role as General Medical Officer with the USS Repose (AH-16), Hagen went back to Vietnam over parts of 1966 and 1967.
“It was really rewarding to take these casualties on the ship and see these young Marines who had been in the dirt and fighting come into this clean environment and get well under a much different circumstance,” said Hagen. “People said to me, ‘Why would you go to war as a doctor?’ Well, I went to take care of the sons and daughters of America who were in Harm’s way.”
After some R&R in San Diego, Hagen was asked to return to Vietnam in 1968 to provide direct medical support to American soldiers on the front lines.
“[The commanders] said, ‘We need someone like you in the Delta.’ So they sent me to the Mekong Delta to oversee the medical support for the Riverine Force there,” continued Hagen. “From there, I often went out to care for Vietnamese people in the villages too.”
Mr. Hagen goes to Washington
Although trained in general medicine, Hagen’s wartime experiences turned him on to surgery. So after the war, he entered surgical residencies in Queens, N.Y., and Portsmouth, Va., respectively. Climbing the naval ladder throughout the 1970s, Hagen later served as Chief of Surgery for U.S. Navy hospitals in both Pensacola and Jacksonville, Fla., and Yokosuka, Japan. After a variety of posts in Washington D.C., he became Commander of the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Md., in 1988, and then Surgeon General of the Navy in 1991.
“As the Surgeon General responsible for wartime and peacetime health care overall, I had oversight and management of all hospitals for the Navy and Marine
corps worldwide,” said Hagen, who played a role in naval deployments throughout the late-1980s and early-1990s, including those in Iraq, Haiti, and the former Yugoslavia. “During the Balkan war, we had a hospital on an airstrip in Zagreb—the U.S. wasn’t really involved in the war yet, but we were treating casualties from other United Nations countries. So I went there during Christmastime 1994 and met Pope John Paul II at the Vatican, who was very interested in Yugoslavia and its people.”
Although he retired from the Navy in 1995, Hagen soon found himself serving as Executive Vice Chancellor for the University of Kansas Medical Center in Kansas City and Wichita for 10 years.
Re-retiring to Florida in 2010, at age 68, Hagen still found it difficult to sit on the sidelines.
“Somebody found me down here and asked if I’d be on a board of directors for a local health care system,” Hagen laughed. “So I said ‘yes’ and have done that for four years. That was good because it kept me in touch with medicine. I just turned 80 last year, though, so it’s probably time for me to quit.”
But even as Hagen’s ship sets sail into a more authentic retirement, Pickett’s words continue to ring true about a former kid from North Dakota who dreamt of deep waters and dedicated service: “A man of Vice Admiral Hagen’s talent and integrity is rare indeed and while his honorable service will be genuinely missed, it gives me pleasure to call upon my colleagues from both sides of the aisle to wish him and his family every success as well as fair winds and following seas.”
Semper fortis, Vice Admiral.