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School of Medicine graduate Adam Robinson, now surgeon general of the Navy, was the featured speaker at last spring's Top 100 Outstanding Students Recognition Dinner.

One day, Adam Robinson might find himself visiting a U.S. medical station in Asia; the next day, it might be an Expeditionary Medical Facility in Afghanistan.

A couple of days after that, he might wind up advising his boss at the Pentagon. He might even find himself answering weighty questions in the hallowed halls of the United States Congress.

Welcome to life as the Surgeon General of the United States Navy, a post now filled by Vice Admiral Adam Robinson, a 1976 graduate of the IU School of Medicine.

Robinson oversees numerous humanitarian missions for victims of storms, earthquakes and other events that threaten lives, and offer the U.S. Navy an opportunity to make an impact.

Robinson actually fills two roles. As Surgeon General, he is the chief medical advisor to the Chief of Naval Operations (CNO) in the Pentagon. As the chief of the Navy's Bureau of Medicine and Surgery, he is responsible for nearly 60,000 employees, a $3 billion budget and worldwide impact not only on Navy and Marine Corps personnel and their families, but on people of other lands helped during the Navy's humanitarian missions.

All that means Robinson — trained as a surgeon — operates in a far different theater these days. His operating room is the entire Navy health-care system; his patients are all the Navy's patients. But his goal remains the same: to provide the best possible care.

“At the end of the day, medicine is always a contact sport,” says the Louisville native. “The science and art of medicine is what all of us physicians have to come to grips with, to help people through very troubled times of their lives. We can't always cure, but we can always care.”

Variety of challenges

Robinson uses an enterprise style of management with his staff to develop policies that improve physical and mental health, establish healthier environments and confront pending health issues that “make sure we're doing everything we can to meet the needs of our patients and our families,” he says.

His regular Pentagon meetings with the CNO help build the framework for a massive health-care system that tackles challenges ranging from medical operations in combat theaters like Afghanistan and Iraq to family health issues for infants and school-age children of Navy and Marine personnel.

The vice admiral says people often are surprised by the Navy's role in U.S. war efforts, especially in desert or mountainous settings. But they are just as intrigued by another, often overlooked facet of the Navy's mission: humanitarian service, including medical and other health-related efforts.

“We play an integral role in our country's relief efforts,” says Robinson. The Navy has numerous ships whose primary mission is human assistance and disaster relief, and that's no accident — it's “a strategic imperative.”

The military might of America's armed forces — “hard power” for short — is well known. But the humanitarian efforts — called “soft power” — are perhaps even more vital.

“Soft power wins the hearts and minds of people in the long term,” the vice admiral says. The trick, he adds, is striking the right balance of hard and soft power.

Key goals, major impact

Robinson had several clear goals in mind when he became surgeon general. During his rise through the ranks, he's been part of a “major shift” in Navy health-care policy, from a physician-centered operation to a patient-oriented focus.

“That's been a vital change,” he says. It gives officers and enlisted personnel greater confidence in the quality of care they and their families receive, and has made the medical command a partner in health and wellness efforts for families.

Robinson also is determined to reward professionalism among his ranks, to retain quality workers and to continually improve the service's health care.

Enhancing the career prospects of all medical personnel rewards their commitment, improves morale and is a powerful recruiting tool for the next generation of caregivers.

That focus is vital in an organization that depends upon long-term commitments.

“The Navy is a family-centered operation,” Robinson says, pointing to the old service maxim that “you recruit an individual but you retain a family.

“If the family isn't happy, your people won't stay in the military,” the surgeon general says. “We have to make sure we keep families involved in everything we do.”

Family background

Family has always played a pivotal role in Robinson's life. His father was a doctor and a role model for young Adam Robinson; the impact his father's medical practice had on their community left a lasting impression.

Vice Admiral Adam Robinson, Surgeon General of the United States Navy

At first, the youngster wanted to follow in his father's footsteps, but after a while Robinson realized that that goal “was because of him, not because of me.”

So Robinson enrolled at Indiana University's Bloomington campus and “went into arts and sciences, which was good for me.” But by the time he had earned his B.A. in political science, Robinson had another — though familiar — revelation: “I wanted to do medicine. It was what I was called to do.”

So he moved to Indianapolis, enrolled in the IU School of Medicine and the new IUPUI student pursued his new dream: to become a surgeon.

“The field is geared to a person's personality,” Robinson chuckles, and “surgery fit my needs.”

Even now, when his “scalpel” is more apt to fix a budget line than a patient's problem, he occasionally finds himself longing for the familiar.

“I miss it, for a lot of reasons,” he says. “You always miss the things you've mastered. I'd become successful doing it, so stopping was difficult. But at the same time, I was able to provide help in another area, and that's important, too.”

Medical commands have provided Robinson with a wealth of experiences.

Such opportunities were “part of the reason I stayed in the Navy past my initial commitment,” Robinson adds. “I realized what I was doing couldn't be duplicated on the civilian side.”

Personal relationships are always at the heart of a successful medical practice; they matter to Robinson, even in an organization as large and far-flung as the U.S. Navy.

“There is no way you can serve that closely with men and women, enlisted and officers, and not form close relationships,” he says. “You're together with people for years — it makes for a really close community!”

Robinson did enjoy one perk of his job, one near and dear to anyone born and raised in Louisville: the first Saturday in May, Kentucky Derby Day.

“I got to go to the Derby two years ago and had a grand time! I'd been to Churchill Downs before, but never on Derby Day,” he laughs. “I had to leave Louisville, spend 30 years in the Navy traveling the world before I got to see the race!”