Date: July 1st, 2006
Veterans who meet Dr. Henry A. Essex at the Veterans Affairs (VA) Center in Providence, Rhode Island are fortunate to encounter a man who deeply understands them and their experiences.
At 89, Essex is a veteran himself of a distinguished Army career that spanned two wars, in which he was as a doctor, field surgeon, chief of orthopedics and surgery, and hospital administrator. Throughout, he steadily advanced in responsibility and remained open to new experiences.
”I’m interested in the experiences of other service people,” says Essex, explaining why he continues to work at the VA today, meeting with veterans to evaluate their claims for disability. “I understand what they’ve gone through, and what stresses they’ve had.”
Beyond his medical skills, Essex has many other achievements, including a pilot’s license, scuba-diving, woodworking, fly-fishing, clock-building, piano playing, and boating. He is also a cancer survivor. His life is characterized by tenaciousness, risk-taking, and the conviction that anything can be learned, with hard work.
“I think one of the things that has kept my father going is the rejuvenating power of change and recurring mental exercise,” says his son, David. “He experienced so much career change in the shifting and transient context of the Army Medical Corps, and had had a lifelong tendency to take courses and teach himself things.”
Essex was born and raised in Washington, D.C. His parents believed strongly in formal education but were of limited means, so he worked summers and part-time to pay for his studies at the University of Maryland. After graduating in 1939 with a degree in mechanical engineering, he joined the National Advisory Committee for Aeronautics (NACA). During World War II, he continued at NACA in essential war work in Cleveland. He also earned a pilot’s license, racking up 180 flying hours.
Realizing that he was “more interested in people than things,” he started pursuing a medical degree, first taking night courses in biology. Once again he paid his way through school, and ultimately graduated in 1950 with a medical degree from Case Western Reserve University.
According to Essex, the turning point of his life came when he approached the Army for help with his residency. His timing was fateful: he signed up for Army duty on June 22, 1950, three days before the start of the Korean War. Essex became a battalion surgeon in Korea, responsible for 1,000 men. He enjoyed the challenges and the variety of cases he saw. “The biggest thing was to be flexible,” he said, “You did what you had to do at the moment.”
Returning to the US in 1953, Essex completed his residency and served in Texas and Hawaii before becoming chief of orthopedics at Valley Forge General Hospital. There he supervised young doctors and performed surgery in a unit with 130 patients. After two years of intense work, he became unusually fatigued, and was diagnosed with cancer. He was hospitalized for months and underwent multiple operations. Upon his recovery, he was made chief of the department of surgery.
In 1964 he became chief of orthopedics and surgery at the hospital of Ft. Belvoir, Virginia. “I was happy to be my own boss,” he said. He also developed a passion for boating on the Potomac, which he had to put aside when he got orders to go to Vietnam.
In Vietnam, Essex was responsible for supervising foreign medical units and health services for the South Vietnamese over a wide area. He traveled the country in small planes, often sitting up front with the pilots and reading the instruments. He saw the country change radically after the Tet Offensive: “the whole country became chaotic,” he said.
Returning to the U.S., he became a full colonel and took command of the hospital at Fort Eustis, Virginia. There, he became president of the flying club at the base. He had to be relicensed: “electronics had changed, and there were new advances to learn,” he said.
Essex returned to Korea in 1972, this time as the Army’s chief surgeon in charge of medical services to over 30,000 troops. He also headed a flying club there. What about flying appeals to him? “It’s a fun way to travel and see the world, in ways you can’t from a commercial airliner,” says Essex. “You also constantly have to make decisions, such as, ‘what am I going to do about those thunderclouds out there?’”
After retiring from the Army, he continued his medical career in orthopedics at the VA Hospital in Providence. He continues to work for the VA today because he believes “if you rest, you rust.” For fun, he boats several times a week. Last year he attended the 55th reunion of his medical class.
When asked what he is most proud of, he answers without hesitation, “My Army career. When you’re young, you read of going places and experiencing life. I did so in the Army—I had those experiences and adventures.”
“I had a friend many years ago, a former rabbinical student who turned to physics,” he continued. “He used to say, ‘the object of life is to live.’ That’s what I believe.”
Dr. Essex continues to live up to that motto, making the most of each day while helping others. It’s a prescription any doctor would recommend for a life well lived.