In his latest “Dear Grandson,” Stan Gerding talks about his role at Bethesda Naval Hospital, having coffee with Admiral Zumwalt, and going back to school at age 41.
My first day as the Leading Chief of the Lab, I got introduced at the morning meeting by the Captain who got me there. He had amazing things to say about me, some I thought were a little exaggerated, but nonetheless very nice.
The Chief I was replacing took me around the whole lab to meet all the active duty staff and the civilian employees. We spent a lot of time in his office working on reports and just giving me pointers on the lay of the land, so to speak. We also set a time to travel to all the outlying areas that fell under the lead of the laboratory: Pax River, Indian Head, Dahlgren, Quantico, and a Navy contingency group at Fort Detrick, to name a few. That was going to take a few days, since there were so many of them.
Bud was doing well in school and meeting lots of friends. Richard Montgomery was getting ready for baseball season and Bud was excited to start practicing and competing in regular play. I would attend practices when my schedule allowed and really got a good sense of what kind of team this would be. The kids on this team seemed to be spirited and hardworking and I felt this is a good match for Bud. Prior to baseball season, Bud stayed in shape by getting on the swim team for the high school and was pretty good, if I may say so myself. Of course, I have a little bias when it comes to my son.
When I first got to Bethesda, I met a Master Chief by the name of John Kelsey, he and I became the best of friends and we would jog together at lunch time and we talked about many topics including Vietnam, which he served two tours over there and had a Bronze Star and several Purple Hearts. I guess you could say we had a lot in common, more than I had thought.
You see, John and I were stationed at Bethesda at the same time in 1967-68. I played softball on the Marine liaison office team and John played on the NMRI (Naval Medical Research Institute) team; I was the pitcher and John was a third baseman, I was an HN Hospitalman (E3) and John was a 2nd Class Petty Officer (E5). Now, here’s where it gets good.
One evening, we were playing NMRI and it was a good game, very close. I remember hitting a ball in between the right fielder and the center fielder. I took off like a bat out of hell and it looked to me as if I could make it to third. So, I am running toward the base and there was John waiting on the ball and I slid, and my lead foot went directly into his glove. Unbeknownst to me, the ball got to his glove before my foot, so, I was out. We eventually lost that game by one run.
He and I laughed about that play and that game until we had tears in our eyes. I had tears in my eyes one other time due to John and it was when he came to me and asked me if I would sing the National Anthem at his retirement ceremony. I was honored by this request from a man that I grew to love and admire. John didn’t go far after his retirement; you see, he got a job as a civilian working as a contract manager at the hospital. I was able to have coffee with him in the morning like we did every day before his retirement, and occasionally we would have lunch together.
Kelsey and I also had another friend whom we would run around with and that was Senior Chief Dana McGowan, the head of the Ancillary Departments of the hospital. John, Dana, and I were like brothers; we were on the same committees, we were advisors to many folks in the hospital, and the Commanding Officer Admiral Hagen took a liking to us. You could say we had a hand in running the hospital. I think it bears mentioning at this time that, when we walked the halls of the hospital, we got more respect from the staff, we would hear “good morning, Chiefs” from everyone we walked past, and this will weigh in heavily, for me, down the road.
One morning, when I came to work and I was walking in from the garage and passing the cafeteria, which was an open cafeteria, I noticed a man sitting there having a cup of coffee by himself. It clearly looked like Admiral Elmo Zumwalt, former Chief of Naval Operations, and before that was Commander of Naval Operations in Vietnam.
I stopped and went over to him and greeted him with the utmost respect.
Admiral Zumwalt said to me, “Chief, want to have a seat and drink a cup of coffee with me?”
I told him it would be an honor to do so, with someone whom I admired so much during my Naval career.
Admiral Elmo Zumwalt
He told me he was there at the hospital to have some bloodwork done and to meet with a few of the doctors for appointments. I told him I would be more than glad to take him to the lab and I personally would draw his blood and I would escort him to the physician appointments.
I really enjoyed sitting there with him talking about Vietnam and the infamous “Z-grams” and he got a chuckle when I told him the story of the beard issue at the Washington Navy Yard. We finished our coffee and I escorted him to the lab where I drew his blood. I then took him to his first doctor appointment and said my goodbyes to him and I instructed one of the corpsman in that department to please escort him to his next appointment, he deserves all the respect that we can give him.
I went to my office where I had several meetings and to do some paperwork. I was in my office when I heard a knock on my door, it was Admiral Hagen. He wanted to let me know that Admiral Zumwalt stopped by his office to let him know about one of his Chiefs that was so kind to him that morning.
The Admiral looked at me and said, “Thanks.”
I felt good about my treatment of one of the greatest Navy heroes of all time. It was about 12 years later I heard about his death from Mesothelioma due to his exposure to asbestos on Navy ships.
By the way, Grandson, I forgot to mention that I had a part-time job at Suburban Hospital working in the lab every Wednesday. And every other weekend, I was going to the University of Maryland, working on my bachelor’s degree in Hospital Administration. I went to school on Monday, Tuesday, Thursday, and on every other Saturday taking four classes per semester and on occasion would take in some sporting event that Bud was involved in. I was busy, not too much downtime.
Some of the interesting moments of going to school was the fact that I was 41 years old and most of the students in my class were between 20 and 26 years old. I sure did get stared at a lot, but I think most of the students liked me because I did a lot of the talking in the classes due to my experiences in life.
One of my professors, Healthcare Management, asked me the first day of class how I would like to be addressed, “Sir, Mr. Gerding, or Stan?”
I told him I was a Navy Chief and I am used to being called “Chief” and from that time on I was called Chief.
More later, Grandson.
Stan Gerding is the author of the book The Nam “Doc” A Navy Corpsman’s Story.