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Assistant Secretary Martinez Reflects on Life's Work, Taking Care of People

Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs Dr. Lester Martinez-López believes that every decision he has made, or that was made for him throughout his life, led him to being nominated by President Joe Biden in 2022 to his current position as the head of the Military Health System.

"It's a calling," said Martinez when asked why he took the position coming out of semi-retirement. "I was literally developed for this job. I want to serve those that served."

A man in a suit smiles on stage in front of two flags.
Dr. Lester Martinez-Lopez
Dr. Lester Martinez-Lopez, the assistant secretary of defense for Health Affairs, speaks at the Defense Health Information Technology Symposium in New Orleans in August 2023.
Photo By: Jason Cunningham, DOD
VIRIN: 230808-D-RS627-6075

Whether during his 27-year military career or his civilian life, "I have done everything that health care has to offer," he said. "It has led me here." 

Humble Beginnings in Puerto Rico Led to Life in Public Service  

As a young boy in a small mountain town in Puerto Rico, he remembered a time when you could run around without any care in the world. 

"We were free-range kids," said Martinez. "We would run all around town and have a good time. Everyone knew everyone." 

He grew up in a family of four and a large extended family. Two close relatives were physicians, and this is where he got the motivation to enter medical school. 

He began his post-secondary school life young. He graduated high school at 16, went to the University of Puerto Rico at 16 and entered medical school at 19. He was 22 when he graduated in 1977. 

In his second year of medical school, a friend encouraged him to apply for the Health Professions Scholarship Program through the U.S. Army. A few months later, he was selected.

In 1978, he interned at Fort Bragg in North Carolina when he joined the U.S. Army. He received his specialty training in family practice and was commissioned at the rank of captain upon completing the program. 

For his first assignment, he served as a flight surgeon at Fort Belvoir in Virginia when he had the opportunity to volunteer for a mission to the Sinai Peninsula in Egypt as part of a multinational force. 

This mission is when he decided to stay in the U.S. Army as a career. 

"I was hooked," he said. "My experience there was life changing. I developed friendships and a direction to my life." 

Upon returning from the mission to Egypt, he completed his Master of Public Health degree from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health with a specialization in aerospace medicine. 

Other milestones in his military career include serving as chief medical officer when U.S. forces were sent to Haiti in 1995, and in 1998, he oversaw military relief operations for 8,500 victims of Hurricane Mitch in Central America. He served as commander of three military hospitals, and later as the commanding general of the U.S. Army Center for Health Promotion and Preventive Medicine, where he directed a worldwide public health organization. 

Though he had many missions, assignments, and commands during his career, he fondly remembered his last one as commanding general of the U.S. Army Medical Research and Material Command at Fort Detrick in Maryland. Assigned to the position in 2002, he was the first Latino American to head the unit. 

"I was like a kid in a candy store there," he remembered. "It was an experience. There was a strong sense of security and community." 

As commander of USAMRMC, Martínez directed the Army's worldwide medical research, acquisition and logistics program, spanning six medical research laboratories and more than half a dozen support centers across the country. 

He retired from the U.S. Army in 2005 as a major general.

Retirement Would Not Last Long 

He and his wife, Lydia, relocated to Tampa Bay, Florida, upon retirement, but another opportunity soon came knocking. 

Early in 2006, he was approached by a friend about an opportunity in Houston, Texas. 

He took the position of senior vice president and administrator of the Lyndon B. Johnson General Hospital. 

"When I visited Houston, the team and the work they were doing convinced me to come," Martinez said. "It opened my eyes. I learned that you never actually have to leave the country to be on a mission." 

Houston is where he developed a deep passion for helping the underserved. 

"With the working poor, they may not afford insurance," he said. "This is where I wanted to help." 

He talked about how the work there was reenergizing. 

"Whenever I got stressed or tired of the bureaucracy, I would go down to the ER and visit with the patients," he said. "It would recharge my batteries and inspire me to get back to work. Your standard is the patient. You just refocus on the standard. Everything else is easy." 

He spent the next 13 years consulting and volunteering with underserved Hispanic communities across the country. That work was recently recognized by the National Health IT Collaborative for the Underserved with the inaugural NHIT Health Equity and Inclusiveness Award for Excellence in Public Service.

A man in front in business attire talks with two men in a room filled with people.
Taking a Tour
Dr. Lester Martinez-Lopez, the assistant secretary of Defense for Health Affairs, tours the Military Health System Pavilion at the Defense Health Information Technology Symposium in New Orleans in August 2023.
Photo By: Jason Cunningham, DOD
VIRIN: 230808-D-RS627-5982

In 2022, when President Biden nominated him for the assistant secretary of defense for health affairs role, "it was an opportunity to continue my life's work, which has always been about taking care of people," said Martinez. 

Discrimination and the Power of a Good Team 

He acknowledges that he has experienced racism in his personal and professional life, but never to the scale where it kept him from doing what he believed in. 

"I once had an attending (physician) that told me I would not get far because of my accent," Martinez said. "I just let it roll by and never really thought much about it." 

However, he notes he had "many angels along the way," with very few distractors. 

"For every one nay-sayer, I had ten yay-sayers." 

He encouraged others to find a good, loyal team, and do more as a team rather than yourself. 

"In the military, you learn to trust and lean on your team," he said. "Share with your teammate. There is the strength in a team. The power that you can yield as a team is incredible." 

"I also have really good trust and a strong relationship with my wife, who was always ready to go on that adventure with me." 

Advice for Future Service Members and Leaders

For those within the Defense Department, he encourages everyone to take advantage of all the opportunities that the department has to offer. 

"They are there, sometimes you have to look for them," he said. "Don't wait for things to come to you. You must seek them. Be flexible, if one door closes, there will be more. Be willing to take the challenge. Sometimes there are other plans for you, be open to it. 

"My life went pretty fast," he reminisced. "At the end of the day, it's all about people."

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