LANDSTUHL, Germany — Throughout Landstuhl Regional Medical Center’s long, storied past, medical doctors have almost always been in charge.
But on Thursday, Col. Barbara Holcomb became the first registered nurse – and second woman – to take command of the hospital, considered a jewel in the crown of military medicine.
“ ‘Landstuhl is such an awesome place,’ ” Holcomb, in her change-of command ceremonial speech, recalled a friend telling her when she got the news of her assignment. “ ‘They saved several of my soldiers.’ ”
Such admiration for the hospital staff’s expertise at saving the lives of wounded troops “runs deeply through many military leaders,” Holcomb said. “This is indeed an honor.”
Holcomb relieves Col. Jeffrey Clark, who served less than a year before being nominated for promotion to brigadier general and, next month, to take over as commander of the Europe Regional Medical Command. Clark will replace Brig. Gen. Nadja West, who is to become an assistant Army surgeon general.
Clark told those assembled for the ceremony – a group that included, as the hospital does in its 3,000-person staff, servicemembers from all four branches, civilians, Germans and a variety of other U.S. allies – that it had been an honor to be their commander.
“Landstuhl will change a person,” he said. “There’s something special about the place and the people who serve here.”
Clark said that although numerous, admiring luminaries have continuously passed through the hospital, the praise that meant most to him came from a Canadian warrant officer assigned there.
“I have two sons serving in the Canadian army,” the warrant officer told Clark. “What Landstuhl does is provide comfort for mothers like me.”
The hospital opened in 1953, part of the huge U.S. military presence after World War II and through the end of the Cold War. Today, it is the only U.S. military hospital remaining in Europe.
More than 62,000 wounded troops from Iraq and Afghanistan have been treated at Landstuhl over the past 11 years. More than 99 percent of them have survived.
The hospital is expected to stay busy with combat casualties for at least the next two years, when the U.S. withdraws most of its troops from Afghanistan.
The hospital, which also does clinical research and delivers about three babies a day, has received numerous awards, certifications and verifications, not only for its unparalleled trauma care. Landstuhl was also named best hospital in overall care throughout the military and veterans’ hospital system by a military surgeons association.
“Landstuhl is a commander’s dream,” said Clark, a family practice doctor with 28 years in the Army, who hasn’t practiced clinically for the past several years. “We think, wouldn’t it be great if, one day, I could command Landstuhl?”
Every Landstuhl commander in the past decade has been subsequently selected to be a general officer.
Holcomb, a 1987 ROTC graduate of Seattle University, has previously made nursing history. She was also one of the first two nurses to command a Combat Support Hospital – the 21st CSH, out of Fort Hood, Texas, which deployed to Iraq in 2010.
Having a nurse in command of Landstuhl for the first time is a testament to “the increased responsibility given to the Nurse Corps,” said Landstuhl spokeswoman Marie Shaw.
In fact, the Army surgeon general, Lt. Gen. Patricia Horoho, is also a registered nurse, the first nurse – and the first woman – ever selected for the job.
At the ceremony, West, Clark and Holcomb all lauded a non-medic who provided a highlight: Air Force Tech. Sgt. Craig Bowman, of the U.S. Air Forces in Europe Band, who sang both the German and U.S. national anthems, a cappella, and with a soulful flourish.
“That was truly remarkable,” West said, before Bowman got a huge round of applause.