Lt. General Place to retire in July
by Colonel Richard H. Breen, Jr.
Picture this: you are the first United States Army Three Star General selected to lead one of the largest Department of Defense organizations at a time of great change, challenge, evolution, and transition.
Your organization is conducting a complete revision and installation of a brand-new electronic health record system at the same time the United States Congress has directed the consolidation of more than 700 separate Army, Navy and Air Force medical hospitals and clinics into one integrated unit while simultaneous telling you to downsize or right size the manning of 38 of those facilities for cost efficiency and effectiveness. Sound challenging?
And then just for fun, parachute in the largest worldwide pandemic since the 1918 Spanish flu over a hundred years ago. It almost sounds like a plot for a John Grisham novel, where you never know what surprise is coming next.
That is the challenge United States Army Lieutenant General Ron Place faced when he assumed the leadership role as the Director of the Defense Health Agency in September 2019 at its’ headquarters in Falls Church, Virginia, just 8 miles west of the Pentagon. “In most private sector medical organizations, any one of these events would be difficult to execute at best,” stated former Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, the Honorable Tom McCaffery who came to the Department of Defense from Blue Shield of California in the private sector. “Yet the Defense Health Agency under Lt Gen Place’s leadership undertook this complex mission all at once. It still boggles my mind.”
Hailing from Huron, the son of Bob and Carol Place, was commissioned a second lieutenant in the United States Army in 1986, upon graduation from the University of South Dakota with a bachelor’s degree in chemistry. Following graduation from USD, he attended the Creighton University School of Medicine and completed his General Surgery internship and residency training at Madigan Army Medical Center, located at Fort Lewis, Washington and subsequently his fellowship training in Colon and Rectal Surgery at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical School in Dallas, Texas.
General Place had a distinguished 36-year career in service to this nation. In the early days and assignments of his career, Place focused on honing his skills as a medical officer and as a surgeon to “Be All He Could Be.” Over the course of his career, his assignments took him to places such as Fort Benning, Georgia, Fort Lewis, Washington, Landstuhl, Germany, Fort Knox, Kentucky, Fort Stewart, Georgia and to the Washington, DC region.
But on the morning of September 11, 2001, the world changed for all of us when four airplanes crashed into the World Trade Center, a field in Shanksville, Pennsylvania and closer to all of us who served in the military, the Pentagon in Washington, DC. It was then a switch went off in his mind where he made the mental transition to advance from surgeon to military medical professional leader.
“Prior to 9/11, I saw myself purely as a medical center surgeon. The events of 9/11 clarified for me the true privilege of both serving and leading the courageous men and women securing the freedoms that we hold so dear,” stated Place.
His combat surgical experiences began immediately after the attacks on September 11th. In October 2001, he deployed as a general surgeon with the 250th Forward Surgical Team (FST) (Airborne) to Afghanistan. He subsequently deployed with the 67th FST during Operation Iraqi Freedom I, Task Force Med Falcon IX to Kosovo, and the 249th General Hospital for Operation Enduring Freedom VI.
At Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan in January of 2002, Place was part of a special operations task force during what he described as “probably the most anxiety-provoking and fear-provoking” experience of his military career.
Those experiences set the stage for how he led for the remainder of his career in a wide variety of senior leadership commands and assignments culminating with his time as the Director of the Defense Health Agency.
But it was his leadership during COVID-19 that placed the DHA on the map for the Secretary of Defense and the Department. He proved to the most senior leaders in the military that he could build a registry for the entire Department of Defense. And he did. He was asked to collect 10,000 units of COVID Convalescent plasma in less than 90 days. The DHA collected more than 12,000 units. He was finally asked to administer and deliver the COVID-19 vaccine across the globe to all military health beneficiaries. His vaccine delivery system worked better than any of the 67 jurisdictions across the entire United States.
What an incredible way to cap a distinguished, professional career. Lt Gen Ron Place in his last three and a half years of active military service moved the Military Health System on a forward pace never witnessed in the history of military medicine. From the complicated electronic health record implementation called MHS GENESIS, to the detailed research in right sizing 38 separate military medical treatment facilities for efficiencies, to the successful administration and distribution of the COVID-19 vaccine around the globe, Ron Place clearly demonstrated what leadership in action really means. He capped of this final assignment by completing the transfer of more 700 military medical treatment facilities and the movement of literally tens of thousands of civilian personnel into the Defense Health Agency to finalize a law enacted by Congress in the 2017 National Defense Authorization Act. To put it bluntly, this was the largest movement of personnel, facilities, and equipment in the Department of Defense since the establishment of the United States Air Force on September 18, 1947. No wonder Tom McCaffery said it boggled his mind.
On his last day in uniform when he transitioned the Defense Health Agency to its fourth director, he said, “The mission of military medicine essentially stayed the same for all 36 years of my time in uniform … and that’s to take superb care of anyone who’s raised their hand to serve and to deliver that care anywhere in the world, under the most challenging circumstances imaginable. Our military health mission endures. But organizations, on the other hand, must evolve. High reliability is about adaptation; it’s about improvement. And sometimes that means bringing in a completely new organization, in this case the Defense Health Agency.” What an incredible legacy.
On a personal note, I served with Lt Gen Ron Place for almost three and a half years as his Director of Communications. In that time, I felt I received a master’s degree in medical communications and leadership. I watched this senior officer navigate several intense Pentagon press conferences with the same skill and precision he performed as a surgeon. His ability to communicate across multiple channels to a wide, diverse, and geographically separated audience from social media to video products, weekly messages, media engagement and face to face direct communications is a case study in itself. All this work produced great success and a sense of purpose for those he led. He frequently told his team that “I do nothing. You do everything to make the Defense Health Agency a success.”
But every band needs a conductor, and every football team needs a quarterback and that was the leadership this man brought to the military and to his agency. His retirement leaves a void in both the Defense Health Agency and the entire Military Health System but his impact on the people he led, and their personal and professional lives is immeasurable and forever lasting. I was honored to serve with this patriotic and passionate leader as one of the highlights of my career.
Lieutenant General Ronald Place, United States Army Retired, is currently the President and CEO for the Avera McKennan Hospital and University Health Center in Sioux Falls. He assumed this position in May 2023.
Colonel Richard H. Breen, Jr., United States Army Retired is the Director of Communications for the Defense Health Agency in Falls Church, Virginia. A career public affairs and broadcasting officer, he is a founding member of the Defense Health Agency serving since its inception on 1 October 2013.