Keeping Navy sailors, U.S. presidents healthy part of vice admiral’s job

Retired Navy Vice Adm. Donald Hagen, right, and his wife, Karen, live in Viera.

Ask Donald Hagen whether he would like to be called Vice Admiral Hagen or Dr. Hagen, and he quickly answers.

" I prefer Don," said the 31st Surgeon General of the Navy and a physician who once commanded all aspects of Navy medicine as part of his daily duties.

During his tenure as Surgeon General of the Navy, Hagen was instrumental in the development of the Pentagon’s TRICARE insurance program, which provides comprehensive health care for veterans and their families. He also advocated for women to be assigned to duty on combat ships, helped to ban smoking on all naval vessels, encouraged the development of telemedicine for ships at sea and advocated for wellness education and disease prevention. 

The North Dakota native joined the Navy in 1964, already a full-fledged doctor. It was to be the start of a 30-year career.

"I was going to be drafted as a private, so I ran off and joined the Navy," he said.  

His first assignment with the Navy Medical Corps took him as a battalion surgeon with the Marines in Vietnam. He would return to Vietnam twice, first aboard the hospital ship USS Repose and later as staff surgeon with the Riverine Assault Forces in the Mekong River Delta. 

"I often went out to care for the Vietnamese people in the villages, too," he said.

After a series of assignments at naval hospitals, in 1988, Hagen was selected to his favorite job, commander of the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. He was named Surgeon General of the Navy in 1991, with responsibility for all Navy and Marine Corps hospitals worldwide. The job also included coordination of medical care for Presidents Ronald Reagan, George H. W. Bush and Bill Clinton.

Vice Admiral Hagen met his wife, Karen, during his surgical residency at Portsmouth, Virginia. Like her husband, she was driven to serve in both the Navy and the medical field. 

"I wanted to do something to help the country," said Karen, who studied nursing before enlisting. She later left the service to raise three daughters.

"She then became the world’s best volunteer," said her husband.

Karen was recognized with one of the highest awards from the Secretary of the Navy for her role in the implementation of the Family Support Council during Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

The couple enjoy nine grandchildren, who range in age from 6  to 22. 

After Navy retirement, the vice admiral served as executive vice chancellor for the University of Kansas Medical Center for 10 years before moving south to Heritage Isle in Viera. Only a pandemic has been able to keep him away from the water. 

"Prior to COVID, we spent our time cruising, but now we have to be at home with our photos and memories," he said.