In the spirit of Horatio Alger, the title of Harold M. Koenig’s book tells the whole story: From 4-F to U.S. Navy Surgeon General: A Physician’s Memoir (McFarland, 215 pp. $35, paper; $9.99, Kindle).
Koenig won an appointment to the U.S. Naval Academy in 1958, but attended classes for only a year because he lost hearing in one ear. Categorized as 4-F—medically unfit for military duty—he worked his way into Baylor University Medical School in 1962.
He was set to graduate in 1966 when the Vietnam War sped up. The Navy needed doctors and—ignoring his 4-F status—enticed him to enlist by offering an Ensign’s commission and paying his college loans. In exchange, Koenig agreed to serve three years following his internship.
He and Deena Prescott married in 1965. They had three sons who all became Navy officers. Deena accompanied her husband on his first assignment in Japan, from 1967-69. “I was happy I would not be going to Vietnam,” Koenig says. Thereafter, he mentions the Vietnam War only fleetingly.
His memoir chronologically works through a thirty-two year career in the Navy. It held my interest because Koenig held many jobs in many locations and provides details and perspectives about all of them. His competence in solving problems earned him increasingly difficult trouble-shooting assignments that built a reputation as an effective leader. He feared no confrontation and made patients’ welfare his primary concern.
Koenig says the hardest job he had was when as “junior to about two-dozen captains,” he commanded the re-accreditation of the Navy hospital in San Diego. His chapter on those two years of duty teaches lessons about how to cope with one nightmarish problem after another. Success in that job cinched his promotion to admiral.
Koenig repeatedly worked for the same bosses and gave them his total loyalty. He also never forgot those who worked for him.
On his way to the top, he continued to solve difficult problems. They included:
- finding medical manpower for the first Iraqi War
- improving TRICARE and Medicare for troops and their dependents
- working with—and against—members of Congress on Base Realignment and Closure
- remedying a shortage of doctors
- attending meetings that frequently improved policies, especially inter-service sessions.
Koenig closes his memoir by recalling his social life and travel during his Navy years. His perks included lunching at the White House with President Clinton, marching among the midshipmen at Army-Navy football games, and flying with the Blue Angels. Fact-finding travel took him to virtually every military hospital in the United States and to dozens of places around the world.
The message from Koenig’s memoir: Hard work and friendships pay off.