By Steve Lewis
TEMPLE, TX – Retired Brig. Gen. James T. Turlington, MD, may no longer be an active duty general officer in the Air Force, but he’s still practicing medicine — and still making a difference.
In fact, Turlington, a urologist at the Central Texas Veterans Healthcare System in Temple, TX, recently was awarded the H.G. Stevenson award, presented annually by the Society of Government Service Urologists (Kimbrough Society) for “outstanding support and dedicated service to the Society.”
“I told them it was probably because I’ve outlived everybody,” Turlington quips, adding that he has been an active participant in the society for years and has presented papers frequently.
Nevertheless, he remains humble about receiving the award. “We’ve had three Air Force urologists become general officers, and I’m sure that had some influence,” he asserts.
He and these other general officers “have been trying to promote and encourage younger urologists to take command roles in their respective services,” Turlington continues. “A lot of surgeons are reluctant to do this because they feel they will lose their surgical skills.”
There’s another way to look at that, he asserts. “As a pediatrician, for example, you may only treat 25 patients a day, but as a hospital commander and surgeon you’re responsible for literally thousands of patients; that’s the way I always try sell it to younger urologists – you may have a larger footprint.”
A Rich History
Speaking of footprints, Turlington is walking in some pretty big ones – dating back to the French & Indian War and the War of 1812, both of which saw his ancestors serving.
“I’ve got a long family history of service, including on both sides of the Civil War,” he shares. “One was a POW from Mississippi and the other was a Union soldier killed at Shiloh.” His father, he adds, was in the Army Air Corps.
Turlington himself had always wanted to fly, but the visual requirements for attending the Air Force Academy “stopped me.” He next went to Baylor University but was turned down by ROTC because he was too young – a result of early graduation from high school. When he went to medical school, he approached the Air Force once again, and “I got in the back door after three tries.”
As a pilot, then as a flight surgeon for four years, Turlington says he was associated with the “best and brightest.”
“To be around people your age doing heroic acts, those people become your best friends,” he recounts. That camaraderie can span the generations, he notes, as he learned when he found that the chief of surgery during his residency had been his father’s flight surgeon.
“These are high-quality people,” Turlington continues, emphasizing the sense of loyalty that developed. “My last few years, I switched to private practice but I enjoyed my uniform days much more.” Turlington retired out of the military in 2005.
“The general public does not realize what a treasure of patriotism and skills we have in the Pentagon,” he asserts.
An Officer and Physician
How did Turlington view his mission as an officer and a physician? “If you’re fortunate enough to become a general officer, it’s a very humbling experience,” he says. “You realize the impact you have on the people who see you. You have to make them feel important, make sure to give out the accolades they deserve. The effect you can have just by walking in a room with a bunch of troops and talking is very humbling and very spectacular.”
The majority of servicemembers who become general officers, he continues, clearly understand the responsibilities they have “and at times it dawns on you that you represent thousands of people. I also saw this in action when people were put in combat – I know the gravity it carries with line officers when they do it – nobody takes it lightly.”
When he talks to younger physicians and urges them to move over and get in the command structure, “I have to make them humble,” adds Turlington. “Most of the pilots I work with are probably brighter than the average doctor, and I have to let them know that at times they are not the brightest light in the room.”
It is his love of the practice of medicine and his devotion to the military that motivate him not only to encourage these younger urologists but also to continue his career as a physician.
“Those of us [urologists] who have become general officers have all gone back to practice,” Turlington notes. “We want to practice medicine after we retire from the military because we like what we do. In fact, I can’t imagine not being a doctor; the real satisfaction comes from taking care of those people.”