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Army Surgeon General Discusses Career

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AUSA News
Monday, September 26, 2016

More than once, the Army has publicized the facts that Lt. Gen. Nadja Y. West, the service’s surgeon general and commander of U.S. Army Medical Command, is the first black officer to hold those jobs, the first black female three-star, and the highest-ranking female graduate of the U.S. Military Academy in that school’s history.

How does it feel to be described in such iconic terms?

“Very strange,” West smiled. “I have to chuckle. In your own skin looking out, you just see yourself as another person. When I hear people mentioning that, I want to look around to see who they’re talking about. I have a 23-year-old, a 20-year-old, and I’m just their mom.”

West said the feeling is all the more surreal because she comes from a “very humble family. My parents were very hard-working people. My dad joined the Army in 1939 when it was still segregated, and stayed for 33 years. They always said to just do the best you can, and things will work out.”

West spoke about her background during the one-day professional development seminar “Army Medicine Enabling Army Readiness Today and Tomorrow,” hosted by the Association of the U.S. Army’s Institute of Land Warfare. The Hot Topic forum was held Sept. 22 at AUSA’s Conference and Event Center in Arlington, Va.

West is the youngest of 12 adopted children. Like their father, many of her siblings also served in uniform. Three sisters served in the Women’s Army Corps, another served in the Women in the Air Force program, another was in the Navy, and she had a brother who retired as an Army command sergeant major. “It was just a given that I was going to serve,” she said.

As she has risen up the ranks, West has found it “humbling” that other soldiers might consider her a role model. She told of visiting Fort Eustis, Va., more than a decade ago as a colonel, and stopping to talk with two young female privates, one of whom asked West’s perspective on whether she could also become an officer.

Like her parents before her, West said she told the soldier, “You can do anything you want to do,” then added, “And I had better hear that you tried.”

Several years later while serving in Germany, then-Brig. Gen. West got an email and photo from a female first lieutenant, a military intelligence officer. It was the former private from Fort Eustis, who had made it to sergeant, then decided to go to West Point.

“She wrote, ‘I never would have done that until you told me I could,’ ” West said.

West said she greatly appreciates the “awesomeness” of being able to lead the U.S. Army Medical Department. “Such an incredible group of people, 150,000 strong, if you talk about our total force—soldiers, civilians, contract personnel, Red Cross volunteers, all across the world. It’s very humbling that I was chosen to lead this great organization, this national treasure.”