General reflects on military career, local roots

After looking back on a career that spanned the better part of 40 years and spanned multiple continents, Director of Defense and Health Lt. Gen. Ronald Place returned to the cornfields of South Dakota this month.

The looming Midwest snowstorm welcomed Place back to his home state on Monday with Box Elder’s final official visit to Ellsworth Air Force Base before retiring from military service next month.

The Huron native Place said growing up in South Dakota made him a better officer, a better doctor and a better leader.

“You plant trees for others”

“One thing I can say about South Dakota people is that life is hard. Life is challenging and whining about it doesn’t help,” Place said. “It’s about how you work. How do you think and how do you work with others to solve problems that you often can’t solve alone?”

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The rest of the country, the rest of the world, doesn’t necessarily think that way, he said. The idea is to change the leadership philosophy that has led them to lead health agencies serving the 9.6 million military personnel, retirees, and their families in the United States.

we Think of it that way – we work together that way,” he said of South Dakotan. , we happily say yes, because we know that’s the only way it works. ”

Relying on those around him and giving them credit has become a hallmark of Place’s leadership style. His breadth of experience and reliance on diverse perspectives in leading a joint agency encompassing the Army, Navy, Air Force, a blend of cultures and a global workforce of 140,000 was a job necessity.

All his experience until the last five years has been in the Army. There’s rivalry in the branch, he chuckled, alluding to the recent army-naval battle and its success — in his eyes.

“But at the end of the day, just like any family that quarrels a little bit, when it comes to someone attacking our family, what do we do? We protect our family.” , and our family is in the United States.”

Smarter, stronger, older, smarter and bringing families together creates a team that means America always wins, he said.

“That’s what I see in this joint force, and I’m proud to be a part of it,” he said. It’s a combination of energizing passion and a range of experiences that make the system better.

For Place, improving the system was both tedious and rewarding.

“You plant trees for others to enjoy the fruit … enjoy the shade,” he said. Hmm.”

global pandemic

He can harvest from time to time. Witnessing cutting-edge innovation is the privilege of this job, and one of his favorite examples is his COVID-19, one of his most difficult challenges as a director. Born from

In May 2020, The Place, like the rest of the world, was navigating the fear and uncertainty of a global pandemic. A group of clinicians in Bethesda, Maryland, were looking for a way to insert a breathing tube to protect healthcare workers in the face of PPE shortages.

U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Ronald Place, director of the Defense and Health Administration, speaks to the Rapid City Journal at Ellsworth Air Force Base on Monday.

AJ Etherington, Journal Staff

Using off-the-shelf off-the-shelf products, they have created an inexpensive device that allows them to hold their breath but avoid it. It was called the COVID-19 Airway Management Isolation Chamber, or CAMIC.

“Seeing problems and solving problems is truly an innovation of American soldiers, and it is very rewarding to see the sons and daughters of America do it,” Place proudly said. I got

Medicine has always fascinated the place. He said he has been a doctor for “most of his life.” He had appendicitis when he was eight or nine years old, which eventually peaked his interest in surgery. Fifty years later, he spent most of his life as a surgeon.

“Life is in your hands”

Everyone has their own story, Place said, recalling his time as a combat surgeon. He said it was “probably the most disturbing and terrifying” experience of his military career.

For several days in the country, they operated multiple military personnel – at the same time the local Taliban decided to launch an attack on the airfield.

“There was no fence or anything like that, so this whole wave of Taliban is rushing towards the airfield,” Place said. “We are working, they are sleeping. We can’t go anywhere.”

Place trusted the forces around him to get his job done – and they did.

“But knowing that you can’t go anywhere and that the life of this soldier is in your hands while this is going on is probably the most incredible experience I’ve ever had. It was a surreal moment… in the military.”

Most surgeons will tell you, but a surgery that doesn’t work is what sticks with you, he said. It’s a complicated surgery before. He was a resident surgeon. The entire surgical team thought one task was done by another. nobody did that. An oversight ultimately resulted in the patient’s death.

“How can it be worth it?”

In a profession where oversight can be fatal, self-doubt and the danger of defeat are very real, he said. That particular surgery made Place wonder if he ever intended to be a surgeon.

Discouragement is a choice, he said. The question, is this the right thing to do, how will he get over it? But he also asked himself some different questions.

“How can I make it worthwhile? How can I learn from it? How can I make sure it never happens again?” Life and death stakes drive system improvement It’s also his motivation. “Then at least something good came out of the tragedy.”

Leadership was never his goal, Place said. He just loved being a surgeon.

“As a surgeon, something is wrong. You do something and you fix it.” The idea of ​​being able to repair the complex organism of the human body was fulfilling, he said. He had no desire or inclination for anything but the operating table.

But every part of his life, from his days working on a dairy farm in South Dakota, to medical school, to the operating table, to the ranks of leaders and administrators, were all building blocks. Continuous.

“It’s a whole life lived and everything relates together,” he said.

back to his roots

Beneath it all beats is the foundation that binds him to his roots, the foundation of humility. He said remember where you are from and show respect to everyone. Don’t just ask him who the other person is, be genuinely interested. And don’t take it too seriously.

“I’m a real kid from rural South Dakota,” he said. In some ways, he’s the same kid from Huron High School at the University of South Dakota.

His leadership in the Defense and Health Service was the culmination of his lived life. So far, at least. Place said he still has a lot to learn.

His approach to work is uniquely surgical, a job he embraced as an opportunity to reach out to millions.

“If you care about your system like you care about your body, then you are talking about manipulating your system, not just one person at a time, but for tens of thousands, hundreds, thousands of people. can be improved, or in my case millions.”

The agency manages 45 military hospitals and over 700 clinics, provides health plans to 9.6 million beneficiaries worldwide, and produces 16,500 new medical technicians annually in education and training and We offer a hospital system that graduates 1,200 new board-qualified physicians. system,” he said.

His job is to set the right path for future success. “It’s my responsibility,” he said. “That’s what I do.”

His resume is sprinkled with combat experience, advanced degrees, academic accolades, and military awards, but in his words, he doesn’t think he’s done anything particularly noteworthy. He surrounded himself with wonderful people and kept them out of the way.

As his retirement neared, Place said he was too old to join the Army but too young to retire. looking for.

One day he was willing to move back to South Dakota.

“This is home,” he said. “These are my roots.”

– Contact Laura Heckmann at –

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