Medical School Shaped Military Career
Commander cites Vanderbilt experience as foundation for success
In the spotlight on Capitol Hill in Washington D.C., Maj. Gen. Steve Jones, M.D. ‘78, finds himself poised, confident and prepared for any inquiry.
Jones holds a critical and prestigious post as commander of the Joint Task Force National Capital Region Medical, charged with providing medical care to all the branches of the military in the medical facilities around Washington D.C. Part of his job has been to ensure that all the services provided at the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center, which officially closed in 2011, were realigned into the new Walter Reed National Military Medical Center and Fort Belvoir Community Hospital.
In many ways, medical school was tougher, he said. As a highly decorated and accomplished commander for the National Capital Region Medical, Jones looks back fondly on his challenging academic career – instrumental in his current role to help shape the future of health care for soldiers and their families.
“My interest in academics awakened here at Vanderbilt,” Jones said. “So many of the lessons I learned, I was able to apply later in the Army.”
During lectures in the amphitheater of the old Vanderbilt University Hospital, and presentations to the faculty, Jones honed his skills under pressure in front of peers. Saturday morning could be particularly tough as students were charged with presenting a patient’s medical history and facing an inquisition from Tom Brittingham, M.D., former director of the Residency Program.
“You had to have done your homework. You had to know your material,” said Jones. “It was pretty intimidating at times but that prepared me well for this job. I’m often questioned by the senior leaders of the Department of Defense, four-star generals, admirals, and members of Congress. They can be just as tough, but it’s nothing compared to what I went through during medical school.”
Jones, the second of five children, was born into a military family in Fort McPherson, Ga. His father Col. Tom Jones, a native of Decherd, Tenn., served in the U.S. Army, moving his family around for various posts, including West Point, Okinawa, Japan, and finally settling down in Arlington, Va. The elder Jones was drafted during World War II, remaining in the Army while he obtained his law degree and became a Judge Advocate General (JAG) attorney.
“I always wanted to be in the Army,” Jones said. “I grew up on Army bases and it never occurred to me not to join.”
As a senior at Washington Lee High School in Arlington, he decided he also wanted to pursue medicine, part of his desire to help people.
Upon applying to colleges, Jones recalled his father’s tales about Vanderbilt. As a boy during the 1930s, Tom Jones took a train from his home in Decherd to Nashville, where he would watch the Commodores’ football team play. His mother traveled with him waiting at a corner store until the game ended.
His father spoke highly of Vanderbilt and the quality of the medical school, and Jones heard the same from cousins when he visited Tennessee. A trip to Vanderbilt, where his oldest brother, John Thomas Jones Jr., was an undergrad, sealed the deal.
“After visiting my brother in the Engineering School and seeing the great quality of life for undergraduates, I decided to apply for admission to the College of Arts and Science,” Jones said. “My father was pleased that I turned down an appointment to West Point, where he went to school, and chose to go to Vanderbilt instead.”
As an undergraduate, majoring in chemistry, Jones had little time to play. When he wasn’t studying, he was busy with the Army Reserves’ Officer Training Corps (ROTC).
“I came here with the goal of getting into Vanderbilt’s medical school, so I studied hard,” Jones said. “I knew the grades I needed to have and I applied myself to get those grades. That was my first priority.”
Jones also anticipated he would practice medicine in the Army during the Vietnam War, happening while he was in school. But the war ended his senior year of college. He had already applied early decision to Vanderbilt’s School of Medicine and been accepted.
Those formidable years of medical school helped shape and influence Jones as the physician and leader he is today. Brittingham played a significant part.
“He is the individual who really taught us to focus, to pay attention to detail. He taught us respect for patients,” said Jones. “He emphasized respect for every patient regardless of who they were. We were told to never sit on a patient’s bed because in the hospital that is the only thing that is theirs.”
Medical school is also where Jones met his wife, Ret. Col. Kristen Raines, who now works for the Accreditation Council for Graduate Medical Education. One day, he mustered up enough courage to sit down to eat lunch with her.
After graduation, Jones headed to the former Walter Reed Army Medical Center, in Washington D.C., where he completed his residency in internal medicine and cardiology.
Jones would parlay his passions for caring for people and military service into numerous posts following his residency. In Honduras he commanded a medical team on a humanitarian mission which helped the country achieve a 90 percent immunization rate for children. As a deputy commander at Fort Bragg, N.C., he cared for soldiers injured in the battle of Mogadishu, Somalia, an incident documented in the film “Black Hawk Down.” He led medical humanitarian assistance operations in Afghanistan during the early years of the war, and later served on a team which uncovered evidence of torture in prisons run by the Iraqi police.
He also served for a time as hospital commander at Fort Campbell, Ky., just before the start of the Iraq war. He arranged with Vanderbilt University Medical Center to have his surgeons do rotations in the trauma center to prepare for deployment. When the 101st Airborne Division departed, he helped care for the families who remained behind. “That was quite a task. That was one of the lessons I learned here at Vanderbilt – how to take care of families, how to look after people.”
The National Capital region, where he now works, has more than 280,000
Treating wounded warriors returning from the battlefield is his first priority. Many have sustained amputations, psychological injuries, or traumatic brain injury (TBI).
“The soldiers we are caring for now have served in combat three, four or five times and experience the cumulative stress of multiple deployments,” Jones said. “Their families have been through four and five deployments as well and we also take care of them.”
The Military’s National Intrepid Center for Excellence is setting up a network of clinics for research and treatment of TBI and psychological injuries. Fort Campbell and Vanderbilt are included.
“There has always been a strong tie between Vanderbilt and the hospital at Fort Campbell,” Jones said. “Fort Campbell will see 2,500 to 3,000 patients a year coming through their new center. They provide outstanding clinical care, but the research and academic components are equally important. The depth and academic strength of Vanderbilt’s faculty will be critical to advancing the treatment of traumatic brain and psychological injuries.”