Veterans Across CUIMC Share Memories and Lessons
From the Revolutionary War to today, physicians, nurses, researchers, students, and staff of Columbia University Irving Medical Center have served in the nation's military.
In honor of Veterans Day, we spoke with 10 CUIMC veterans about their service and its impact on their lives.
Jacky Chen is a quality and patient safety project manager for ColumbiaDoctors. The son of immigrants from China, Chen joined the National Guard as an infantryman “to serve and give back to our country.” He served in the guard for six years and had several roles, including team leader and vehicle commander. He ultimately achieved the rank of sergeant.
Chen sees a lot of parallels between his experience in the Army and his work now. “In the military, you are expected to work efficiently in teams to accomplish the mission. As a project manager at CUIMC, my work is similar," he says. "I have the opportunity to work with individuals from different departments and teams toward shared goals. I feel a similar sense of camaraderie, too, as we’re part of an organization that serves the community—providing high-quality, safe care to our patients.”
At CUIMC Facilities, Robert “Bobby” Dagstine is a building superintendent responsible for several residential buildings. Dagstine joined the U.S. Navy at the age of 17 in 1981 and served as a fireman and hull technician for four years. He was stationed at Pearl Harbor in Hawaii and did tours throughout the Pacific. The most harrowing of these was an “over-haul” expedition that required round-the-clock drills, including a mock helicopter crash at 3 a.m.
Dagstine credits the Navy with helping him learn to prioritize various demands and tasks, which comes in handy as he monitors boilers, checks pipes, and communicates with tenants. “You gotta perform. In the middle of the ocean, there’s nowhere to hide,” he says. At the same time, Dagstine was happy to share his knowledge with less experienced shipmates. “It’s not easy, finding your sea legs. I tried to help the new guys whenever I could.”
Rudolph L. Leibel, MD
Rudolph L. Leibel, MD, is the Christopher J. Murphy Memorial Professor of Diabetes Research and head of the Division of Molecular Genetics in the Department of Pediatrics at the Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons. For the past 25 years Leibel has also served as co-director of the Naomi Berrie Diabetes Center. Leibel served in the Army Medical Corps as a general medical officer from 1969 to 1971 and was stationed in Fort Sam Houston, Texas, and Fort Devens, Massachusetts.
“I went from completing only two years of training as a pediatrician to a setting in which I was required to care for individuals from birth to seniority. I learned a great deal very quickly, much of it self-taught. I have endeavored to maintain habits of self-education.
“The military is an organization comprised of individuals from all over the country and beyond, with diverse backgrounds and sensitivities. Befriending, learning how to learn from, caring for, and teaching such individuals was an experience that continues to inform my relationships with professional associates and friends. I believe many physicians would benefit from such an experience. In fact, some of the divisiveness and intolerance that characterizes our current political discourse might be mitigated by broader exposure of our citizens to such circumstances.”
Joseph M. McManus Jr., DMD
Joseph M. McManus Jr., DMD, is associate professor of dental medicine (in community health) at the College of Dental Medicine. McManus served in the Navy as a dental officer from 1972 to 1974. He was stationed at Philadelphia Naval Base, where he achieved the rank of lieutenant.
“The Vietnam War was on, and I was safe in dental school. As a son of an Irish immigrant, I was sensitive to the fact that the United States gave me enormous opportunities and I felt an obligation to do my part. Therefore, I enlisted in the Navy during my first year of dental school at the University of Pennsylvania.
“I was proud to serve, but in all honesty, the Navy gave me much more than I gave them. I had the opportunity to stand shoulder to shoulder with brave young men and women from all over the country who shared my desire to serve. And yet we were called ‘war mongers’ and a lot worse. I truly hope that all those who wear the uniform can wear it proudly and will never again have to face such disrespect.”
Scotty Morris is a general mechanic for CUIMC. Morris served in the Army as a field artillery radio operator from 1985 to 1993, achieving the rank of sergeant. Morris’ active service included stints at Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina; Fort Gordon in Georgia; along the DMZ in Korea; and at Camp Doha in Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm.
“My father served during the Korean War, and my grandfather served in World War I. I was always interested in the military, so it felt right to join the Army when I did.”
Morris enjoyed bonding with his fellow enlistees and recalls with pride doing his part to keep the country safe from foreign threats. And the work ethic and self-discipline that served him well in the Army play a significant role in his work today. “When parents and trustees attend our graduations, they expect the place to look good. When we’re done painting, it looks brand new.”
Nicholas J. Morrissey, MD
Morrissey, associate professor of surgery at VP&S, joined the U.S. Army Reserve Medical Corps in 1992 after the first Iraq war. “I had finished medical school, and there was a need for well-trained surgeons in the military," he says. "I always had great respect for the men and women who chose to risk their lives to defend our freedoms, and I felt my experience and skill could in some small way help them and the country.”
He drew many lessons from his time in the Army. “The surgery of war trauma is unique; it taught me a lot about basic surgical care, which I pass on to students and residents,” he says. "I developed a respect for the idea of service to country, which can be military or civilian. Some sort of national service for two years after an individual completes their chosen education is something I feel might be great for our society.”
Jacob Palma, DDS
Before joining Columbia as an instructor in the College of Dental Medicine, Palma served as a dentist in the U.S. Air Force from 1996 to 2018 and was stationed in Texas, the Azores, New Jersey, the Republic of Korea, North Carolina, and the U.K. The Air Force was looking for dentists; Palma was looking to serve his country, to travel, and to receive additional dental training.
Palma’s highest commendation is a Meritorious Service Medal with Six Oak Leaf Clusters, but he is most proud of leading Air Combat Command’s 2010 Small Dental Clinic of the Year. He was driven to “maintain the health and readiness of the nation’s fighting force” and, as his clinical responsibilities grew, to “become a model leader.” His students today are well aware of Col. Palma’s expectations and standards, and they love him for “running a tight ship.”
Donald O. Quest, MD
Donald O. Quest, MD, is the J. Lawrence Pool Professor of Neurological Surgery and assistant dean for admissions and student affairs at VP&S. Quest went to college on a Navy ROTC scholarship and was commissioned as an officer and naval aviator. His years in the Navy, between 1961 and 1966, included two nine-month combat tours in Vietnam, during which he was stationed on the aircraft carrier USS Kittyhawk.
Quest looks back with pride at his time in the Navy. It allowed him to serve his country, and it had a more lasting effect, too. The Navy's values of discipline, teamwork, respect, camaraderie, morale, and goal-setting made a deep impression on Lt. Quest, and he embraced all of them. At Columbia, he approaches his craft, his patients, and his colleagues with the same care and precision with which he “flew in formation at 400 miles per hour, 15 feet from my wingman."
Stella Serpa is a manager of appointments and promotions in the Department of Anesthesiology at VP&S. She joined the U.S. Army in 1996 to help pay for college and served eight years as a human resources specialist. During her time in the Army, she was stationed in Colorado Springs, Colorado, and NATO Joint Command South in Italy and deployed to Bosnia-Herzegovina.
Serpa is grateful for every step of her “amazing journey” with the Army. "These experiences transformed me and opened my eyes, at times firsthand, to what people in war-torn countries endure and must overcome,” she says. In the Army she felt part of something bigger than herself and today she proudly brings the Army’s ethos to work every day. “Always act to do the right thing consistent with your values and those of the organization," she says. "Stay focused on the mission, even when you’re having a bad day.”
Jeet Viswanathan is director of energy management and sustainability at CUIMC. Viswanathan is currently a U.S. Army Reservist, on contract to serve until July 2024. Based in Fort Dix, New Jersey, Viswanathan is a human resources specialist with the rank of E5 sergeant.
“As an immigrant to this country, America allowed me to excel and build myself up in multiple ways, for example, in my career. I believe in what America stands for, and I wanted to give back to the country that gave me so much.
“The military is about time and resource management to overcome any obstacles effectively. I continue to use this in my day-to-day work at CUIMC. Some quick examples are being to the point, finding solutions, and implementing them without delay.”