A journey remembered; Maj. Gen. (Dr.) Hepburn retires

  • Published
  • By Mike Joseph
  • Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Pubic Affairs
The commander of the Air Force's largest medical wing has spent more than four decades fulfilling two childhood loves: aviation and medicine.

The melding of these two passions for the past 38 years on active duty reaches its conclusion Friday morning when Maj. Gen. (Dr.) Byron Hepburn, 59th Medical Wing commander and Deputy Director of the San Antonio Military Health System (SAMHS), retires.

"It's been 42 years if you add my four years at the Academy and it's gone by in a flash," said Hepburn, a 1976 U.S. Air Force Academy distinguished graduate. "The special experiences I've had, and the personal joy for Debby (his wife of 30 years) and me, in the Air Force have been amazing.

"We were reflecting about it the other day," he said. "It's been a great journey."

Hepburn said he has enjoyed the diversity of his career as a pilot and physician, and in leadership roles.

"I've been blessed to do so much," he said. "I couldn't imagine a more rewarding career. It seemed like opportunities kept coming and I seized them. I wasn't worried about (the difficulties of an assignment), I enjoyed them with a positive attitude."

Hepburn took command of the 59th MDW in late 2010, before changes brought on by the 2005 Base Realignment and Closure Act would integrate Air Force and Army medical services into what is now the San Antonio Military Health System. The 59th MDW's Wilford Hall Medical Center was transformed from a Level 1 trauma center to an ambulatory surgical center.

He said he knew the assignment would be a challenge.

"Before I took this job, I realized it was going to be a fairly significant change (for both the Air Force and the Army) so I did a fair amount of reading on change management leadership," Hepburn said. "I read works by Professor John Kotter of Harvard (a change management expert), who said effective change takes several years when integrating systems, which is what we're doing here.

"I knew coming in it was going to be a very emotional time because Wilford Hall was the flagship of Air Force medicine, a Level 1 trauma center," he said. "I knew there would be a sense of loss on the part of the wing. There were a lot of unknowns and the biggest fear in life is the unknown."

Hepburn said this was an opportunity to lead the wing through transformation in a positive, professional manner with near and long-term objectives. His goals were defined: to keep morale up and build team spirit; to keep the wing focused on patient safety and the delivery of quality health care; and to effectively accomplish the wing's education, training, research, and readiness missions.

"I've used every leadership tool the Air Force has given me to insure our wing mission and health system success," Hepburn said. "It has been a perfect job to finish out. As an Academy graduate, it's an honor and a privilege to command the largest medical wing in the Air Force as my last assignment.

"We have great people here," he said. "It's been a great honor to build a team with our Army colleagues, and to some extent the Navy, and to focus on driving efficiencies and effectiveness.

"The active-duty members, civilians, contractors, and volunteers all have done an outstanding job in a period of unprecedented change. They have excelled and been professionals - dedicated every step of the way."

A Virginia native, Hepburn grew up with a love of aviation and also with a love of biology and anatomy.

"I knew I was going to be a pilot and, also, I felt at some point I'd be in medicine."

After graduating the Academy, he spent a year in Switzerland getting a master's degree in European studies before becoming a C-9A co-pilot and aircraft commander flying medical evacuation missions. He spent 2½ years in Germany before moving to Scott Air Force Base, Ill., as a C-9A instructor pilot. During his two years at Scott, Hepburn studied pre-med in night school, and was ultimately accepted as a medical student at the Uniformed Services Health University in Bethesda, Md.

Following a three-year residency in family medicine at Andrews AFB, Md., Hepburn became a staff physician and medical director of the Physician Assistant training program at the USAF Academy Hospital, Colorado Springs, Colo.

"I loved my residency in family medicine," he said. "Out of the blue, I got called to go back on flying status (in 1995), then into the pilot/physician program. That's when the C-17 was a brand new aircraft. I was responsible for making sure all the aeromedical systems were working safely for air evacuation."

After leaving the program in 1998, it was on to a number of leadership assignments in Europe and across the United States before arriving at the 59th MDW four years ago.

His assignments included what Hepburn called "the culminating event" in his career. Hepburn was the 86th Aerospace Medicine Squadron commander at Ramstein Air Base, Germany, when 17 American Sailors were killed and 39 injured in an October 2000 suicide attack on the USS Cole while harbored in Aden, Yemen.

"During the USS Cole evacuation," he said, "I had the honor of being on a great crew that brought those Sailors back to Germany. It took my knowledge of medicine, aviation, international relations, French, and leadership to help save the lives of those Sailors. I happened to be in a place, at a time when I could bring all those tools together."

During his tenure at the 59th MDW, Hepburn also focused on developing future Air Force leaders.

"The No. 1 responsibility for a leader is to create future leaders. We've put a lot of focus on leadership development for our Airmen, NCOs, officers, and to some extent, our civilians," he said.

"We've also emphasized taking care of our families," he added. "We're a wing that works hard and plays hard. We're working with great people. We need to celebrate that and take good care of each other."

When talking about taking care of Airmen, Hepburn was quick to praise his wife.

"I've been blessed to have a great wife," he said. "She was an Air Force flight nurse and I'd say she loves the Air Force as much, if not more, than I do. She's a very giving person and really has made a difference wherever we've been.

And as for the future, the general said, "Debby and I will be cheering on the wing and the SAMHS to continued success."