Soldier, doctor, teacher, leader, commander, husband, father, grandfather…
While this term may produce different thoughts for different people, a clear definition begins to form in my mind as I listen to Maj. Gen. James K. Gilman reflect upon his 35 years of service in an Army uniform. I quickly realize the military career of this man goes far beyond that of the Hollywood-generated imagery of what a Soldier’s life is supposed to be.
As the commanding general of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Materiel Command at Fort Detrick, Md., Gilman will soon be retiring from the organization that he regards as family. And as we talk, I see that a wealth of stories and knowledge rests in the mind of this very deliberate man.
Considering his accomplishments as an Army officer, one would think that Gilman initially had set his sights on reaching the level he has – surprisingly, this isn’t the case.
“I joined the Army to fund my education, and the school I chose was very good, but reasonably expensive, so the ROTC scholarship was an opportunity to help pay for college,” said Gilman. “I had no thoughts of staying in the military for a long time. I planned on completing my degree, paying back the time I owed the Army, and then going to work as an engineer in the private sector.”
Rewinding a bit, we travel back to the 1960’s, to the small town of Hymera, Indiana – a community in the southwest part of the state that today still maintains a population of around 800. A young boy named Jim helps with the family’s food store near the heart of town. His father, the store’s proprietor, and his mother, a high school teacher, are instilling in this future military officer the traits necessary to lead a command of over 6,500 personnel.
“The people who were the most influential, for me, are my parents,” said Gilman. “My father died when I was 18, but I worked with him in our family business for a number of years before he passed away. I was able to see the way he related to people, especially those that worked for him – and that experience has influenced my leadership style tremendously. And my mother’s skills in relating to people were influential as well, but for different reasons.”
Aside from two uncles that served, the general did not come from a military family. His father was medically disqualified from serving during World War II, and his older brother was disqualified due to poor eyesight. Fortunately for Gilman, and certainly for the U.S. Army, he was fit as a fiddle and sharp as a tack. So sharp, in fact, that he eventually decided to add a medical degree to his resume, graduating from the Indiana University School of Medicine.
This medical training would set the stage for the general’s military career. After a categorical medicine internship and residency in internal medicine at Brooke Army Medical Center in San Antonio, Gilman served as the Chief Resident in Medicine at BAMC before becoming staff internist and Chief, Internal Medicine Service, for the U.S. Army Medical Department Activity, Nurnberg, Germany.
Throughout much of the 1990s, Gilman developed into a well-versed cardiologist en route to serving as the Chief of Cardiology and director of the Cardiology Fellowship Program at BAMC. Outside of his deployment in 1995 to Haiti with the 2nd Armored Calvary Regiment in support of Operation Uphold Democracy, Gilman spent the better part of the decade as a military cardiologist in the great state of Texas, in and around Fort Sam Houston and San Antonio. It’s probably a safe bet that during this time the general learned as much about heartburn as he did about heart disease – and if you’ve ever tasted authentic Texas chili, you’ll agree.
However, this time spent practicing cardiology would eventually be considered by Gilman to be only the “first half” of his professional life.
“For the early part of my career – about 20 years – I was involved in clinical medicine and teaching, and for a large part of this I was a member of the cardiology training program at San Antonio,” he said. “So I spent a great deal of time with people who were more like I was – a cardiologist. And I was concerned more with learning my craft as a medical doctor, alongside others who were doing the same.”
“Later on,” continued Gilman, “I was grateful for the opportunity to help many young men and women Soldiers progress in their own careers – learning about others’ goals and dreams, and encouraging them to work toward making those dreams come true. This was very gratifying for me.”
And this trait of being a selfless, straightforward individual has quickly become the two-star general’s trademark as a leader. It’s clear to see that the man truly cares about his Soldiers and his staff. He’s not just an “ordinary” leader – many would say he’s the model example of one.
“I consider myself to be a ‘student of leadership,’” said Gilman. “There have been many general officers and colonels that I’ve learned a great deal from. I’ve observed what I think worked well for some people, and I’ve adapted some of these methods a bit to suit my own style.”
Clearly, this has worked out pretty well for him.
It’s safe to say that becoming the leader of a large and integral command such as the USAMRMC requires a work ethic second to none, and it also requires various tours along the way. This was no different for Gilman. On his road to the USAMRMC, the general served as director of Health Policy and Services for the Office of the Surgeon General, as well as commander for Walter Reed Health Care System, Great Plains Regional Medical Command, and BAMC during respective tours. One assignment as commander of Bassett Army Community Hospital took him and his family all the way to Fort Wainwright, Alaska –which added to the unique chronicle he’s compiled over the years.
“My wife commented to me that we haven’t been any place that we hadn’t liked, and I would agree with her,” said Gilman. “We have very fond memories of the places we’ve lived in, but the memories center primarily around the people there.”
The general’s remark comes as no surprise, because clearly he is a “people person.” Again, it’s a part of his trademark – a trademark that also includes the designation of family man.
“Everything I’ve achieved over the past 35 years has only been possible because I have a great Army family, a great Army spouse, and three wonderful daughters that love the Army,” said Gilman. “My girls have never hesitated to tell me that they were proud of what their dad did for a living. And if there is anything a father could ask for more than this, I don’t know what it could be.”
I’m genuinely taken aback by this prominent general officer who is coming across now as a regular guy, the typical father and husband. But he’s still a Soldier, so what do you do after spending more than half of your life in an Army uniform?
“I’m not sure – I may go back to practicing medicine,” said the general. “I probably wouldn’t be happy not working, but it hasn’t been determined yet what this might be. I can say that after the change of command, and the paperwork that goes along with it, my wife and I plan to take some time to relax and travel a bit, and visit our family in San Antonio.”
Again, it all comes back to family, as his definition of this seems to be far reaching. It extends to encompass every man and woman in a military uniform. This is actually the very mission of his current command, to “create and deliver medical information and products for the warfighting family.” To be certain, “family” is at the top of Gilman’s list, and most likely will remain there.
As I wrap up my time with the general, I try to pry out of him what he deems to be his greatest accomplishment over the past 35 years. Put simply, this is a very difficult task, probably because of the man’s lack of ego. But I press him a bit, and he concedes, however slightly.
“I’m not sure I can single out one specific thing,” said Gilman. “I think my role as someone who was able to work with people and reaffirm their quality and value to the organization may be my greatest accomplishment.”
I press him a little further for some final thoughts on his career, and a smile comes across his face – well, possibly because he realizes this interview is coming to a close.
“When I started out at the age of 18, signing up for that ROTC scholarship, I had no idea where it was going to lead,” he said. “But my family and I have been extremely blessed to have done all we have over the last 35 years, and to have met so many people who share the same ideas and goals as we do regarding taking care of our Soldiers and their families.”
“It’s been a wonderful way to spend the better part of my professional life, although it certainly went a lot faster than I thought it would.”
Well, sir, as they say, time flies when you’re having one heck of a life.