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Capt. Richard A. Becker, commander of the U.S. Naval Hospital Okinawa, is retiring after 35 years.

Capt. Richard A. Becker, commander of the U.S. Naval Hospital Okinawa, is retiring after 35 years. (David Allen / S&S)

CAMP LESTER, Okinawa — Capt. Richard A. Becker never considered a career in the Navy.

Now, 35 years after he joined, he says he couldn’t think of a better, more rewarding life.

“I didn’t want anything to do with the Navy,” Becker said recently. Next Thursday he retires, handing over command of the U.S. Naval Hospital here to Capt. Peter O’Connor. Becker will head to Washington’s Puget Sound with his wife, Christine, for a civilian health-care job.

The son of a Naval medical officer, Becker, 54, had no plans when he turned 18 to do anything but stay out of the Army. It was 1970.

“I didn’t create many options for myself in high school, and Vietnam and the draft were in my future,” he said with a grin. “It was tents or ships. It was a pretty simple choice.”

It was a choice that sent him on a 35-year odyssey, first as an enlisted sailor, serving as corpsman aboard the troop transport USS Tripoli in Vietnam, where he provided care for U.S. Marines and South Vietnamese soldiers in Quang Tri province in the waning years of the war. He made chief petty officer in eight years and ran the medical department of a 265-man destroyer escort based in Honolulu.

Finally, he went back to school and earned a degree in hospital administration and received an officer’s commission.

Running U.S. Naval Hospital Okinawa has been the highlight of his career, Becker said.

“What are my best personal memories? Where do I begin?” he said. “The view of the East China Sea from my house, sailing the 22-foot Catalina boats at White Beach, meeting with local hospital officials, reading some of the hundreds of patient compliments we receive every month … There are just too many things to list.

“But perhaps the best memories surround the friendships I made with the local people, especially colleagues in the local medical community and the Japan Self-Defense Force.”

Becker has been involved in several programs to improve the military hospital’s relations with the local medical community, working with local hospitals to enable Americans to receive emergency care at facilities closer to their homes.

He also has been involved in planning for a new hospital to be built on Camp Foster.

“If all goes well, we should break ground on the project next year and move in 2010,” he said. “The facility will permit our providers to practice in a setting that is more efficient and, in the end, will improve access to care for those eligible to use our facility.”

The project, funded by the Japanese government as part of the plan to eventually close Camp Lester, will cost $450 million.

“There are a lot of interesting changes happening,” he said. “In the coming years we’ll see more civilians working in our treatment facilities and we’ll see more joint service integration to reduce duplication of efforts.”

A lot has changed in 35 years, he added.

“Most medical facilities are now state of the art,” he said. “My first desk assignment as a corpsman required that I use a manual typewriter. There was no such thing as CAT scans and MRIs, mainstays in diagnostic imaging today.

“It used to be we treated the disease and injuries,” Becker said. “Over the past several years military medicine has shifted its focus from disease management to preserving health.”

Even as he retires, the Navy will always be a part of Becker’s life — his two sons have embarked on their own careers as Navy officers.

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