Navy's Retiring Surgeon General Reflects on Time in the Military

Vice Adm. Matthew Nathan (U.S. Navy photo)
Vice Adm. Matthew Nathan (U.S. Navy photo)

No one who knew Matthew Nathan when he was growing up in Napa was surprised when he went into medicine. But few would have envisioned him embarking on a Naval career.

Nathan retired this month as a Vice Admiral, Navy Surgeon General and chief of the U.S. Navy Bureau of Medicine and Surgery. An official ceremony was held Dec. 7 at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, Naval officials said.

Originally from the San Jose area, Nathan said his family moved to Napa early in his life and he considers that city and this area his home. He has retained friendships made during middle and high school with fellow football players from area schools, including Hogan and Vallejo high schools, he said.

"When people ask me where my hometown is, I tell them Northern California," says Nathan.

At 60, Nathan said he's not ready to retreat to a rocking chair and is in search of something to do in health care leadership or academics, hopefully, back in this area, which he tries to visit when he can.

"I really miss California, greatly. The area's changed quite a bit from when I traveled the Napa-Vallejo Highway," he said. "The only landmark back then was the junior college, and now there's Six Flags and Mare Island was completely different. I've seen the area explode into a bedroom community of San Francisco."

Always intending to go into medicine, Nathan said he'd planned to attend UC Santa Cruz, but his mother's illness and death changed all that, taking the family to Georgia, where her family lived.

"I wasn't sure how I was going to pay for medical school, and a great friend suggested the Navy scholarship program," he said. "I didn't know much about it, but my friend, whose father worked on Mare Island, knew something about it, so I did it."

Having grown up with long hair and playing in a rock and roll band, Nathan said he intended to do just his three years in the Navy to repay his medical education, but he was first assigned to the Guantanamo Bay, Cuba, hospital, then to a Connecticut submarine base, "and then I was offered a post in San Diego, and I just kept forgetting to get out of the Navy."

Nathan said he thinks one reason he stayed was the sense of camaraderie the military offers.

"I have a small family -- no siblings," he said. "After my mom passed, my dad sort of went his own way. So joining the Navy I found very nice people and I found a sort of family there."

Nathan said he met his wife, Tammy, at a Naval hospital and through the years was assigned to places like London, Washington, D.C., and Japan.

"I was eventually selected to be an admiral," he said.

He was put in charge of combining the Bethesda Medical Center and Walter Reed Army Medical Center, and was then promoted to Surgeon General, the highest point available, he said.

"Nathan also served as commander, Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and Navy Medicine, National Capital Area where he was the Navy component commander to the largest military medical integration and construction project in Department of Defense history," his official biography says. "In 2004, Nathan assumed command of Naval Hospital Pensacola with additional oversight of 12 clinics in four states where he oversaw Navy medical relief efforts following Hurricanes Ivan, Dennis, and Katrina. Despite all facilities receiving crippling blows, his command still garnered the TRICARE/DoD award for "highest patient satisfaction in a medium-sized facility." Nathan's personal awards include the Distinguished Service Medal; five Legion of Merit; two Meritorious Service Medals; Navy and Marine Corps Commendation Medal, and two Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medals.

Now, after 25 years of being told where to go by the United States government, Nathan said he promised his wife they'd make their own decision about where to retire.

"I'm proud of what I've accomplished," he says. "But even more, I'm proud of what the Navy does. Just about everyone in there is about service and not about self, and that's really what kept me in. I'm certainly proud to having risen to the top, but mostly, I'm proud of being in an organization that puts our values ahead of ourselves and defends them."

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