Veterans Day: Celebrating Quality in the Military by Adela Crandell Durkee

This month I am honored to meet Dr. Errol Alden, retire military colonel and current Executive Director of the American Academy of Pediatrics.  A kind-hearted and driven pediatrician, I learned a lot about how the military contributes to quality standards: in medicine, in safety, and in personal fitness.

Dr. Errol Alden, MD, FAAP, retired from a military career in 1987.   He explains the difference between Memorial Day and Veterans’ Day:  “Memorial Day is a time to remember those who died defending our country; Veterans’ Day is a time to consider what veterans contributed to their country.”

In 1938 Congress dedicated November 11 “to the cause of world peace and to be hereafter celebrated and known as ‘Armistice Day.’”  This new legal holiday honored the World War I veterans and the end of “The War to End All Wars.”  In 1954, after both World War II and the Korean War, Congress changed  “Armistice” to “Veterans,” and November 11 became a day to honor all American veterans of all wars.

Alden grew up one of seven children in a farming community not unlike those found in and around Marengo, Illinois, where he now makes his home.  A nerdy/geeky high-school student, he played the French horn in the marching band and participated in student government.  The football team lost every game all four years of his high school career, so the marching band was the place to be.

Alden went on to play in the Ohio State Marching Band where he graduated with an Agricultural Science degree.  So how did he become a military pediatrician?  Approaching graduation, Alden pondered aloud to his parents that he might be interested in medical school.  They told fellow parishioners, who told friends, who told his classmates.  By the time he got back to school, the news was out.  He was going to medical school.  Alden confesses, “I didn’t want to disappoint my parents.”

Alden became a military pediatrician.  Besides treating children of service men and women, and children of Embassy officers, he taught at Madigan Army Medical Center, in Fort Willis, Washington, he served as chairman of Uniformed Services Health Sciences at Walter Reed and he helped establish pediatric standards of care.

Throughout his 25-year military career, Alden experienced many sociological changes.  Before the Viet Nam war, PTSS (Post-Traumatic Stress Syndrome) was rarely recognized.  “People cannot be in war without emotional strain.”  Alden also saw the military go from draft-status to all-volunteer.  This ushered in a shift in strategy.  During the Vietnam war, soldier did one tour of combat duty; now, soldiers are re-deployed to war zones numerous times.   Alden explains the difference between an all-volunteer and a draft military, “Citizens who have been to war are anxious to avoid it.”

Alden saw also many changes for women throughout his career.  Twelve women went through medical school with him; eight were at the top of his class. Women had unequal hurdles to success when he began his career.  Now, 50% of medical students are women.  His own wife dropped, who was perhaps more intelligent than he, dropped out of school without question, so he could continue. Before 1967, the military capped the number of women at  2%.  Women were kept from active duty if they had a child under the age of 18.  Now both mother and father may be deployed at the same time.

Many people are unaware of the contributions military medicine makes to our country and society.  The military developed methods to fight infectious diseases, X-rays for diagnostic purposes, and plaster casts to set bones.  With a little imagination, the link between the military and these medical breakthroughs are apparent.

The military also started the “Back to Sleep,” which reduced the incidence of Sudden Infant Death. The military developed the “push and turn” safety caps, was instrumental in standards for pediatric car seats and conducted many health related studies.  But did you know that Medicaid started because so many young men drafted into the military or who volunteered failed to meet the military health standards?

Alden firmly believes that the military is a great way to give back to the community and the country.  Besides that, it is a great way to stay physically fit and mentally sharp.   The best part of his career?   “Working with the best and brightest in pediatrics to establish standards of care.  It’s always fun to work with people smarter than you are.”

Alden now practices pediatric medicine in Elk Grove Village.  He serves as CEO of American Academy of Pediatrics, which is affiliated with the American Heart Association.   At the same time, he is on the national faculty of the American Academy of Pediatrics’ Neonatal Resuscitation Program.  He and his wife have 5 children, 13 foster children and 17 grandchildren, and a few dairy cows.  In his spare time, he sings in the Marengo Methodist church choir.


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