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In Memoriam: Rear Admiral H. James T. Sears, USN

Nov. 20, 2023 | By Sam Cox (Rear Adm. USN, Ret.), Director, Naval History and Heritage Command
It is with deep regret I inform you of the passing of Rear Admiral Henry James Tipper “Jim” Sears in November 2023 at age 86. Rear Admiral Sears entered the U.S. Naval Reserve in June 1964 and served in the Medical Corps with a specialty in psychiatry until his retirement in November 1989 as Commander, Naval Medical Command, and deputy surgeon general. His commands included Naval Hospital Oakland and Naval Medical Command Southwest Region. He served in the Vietnam War aboard the hospital ship Repose (AH-16).

In 1959, Jim Sears graduated from Wesleyan University in Middleton, Connecticut, with a bachelor of arts degree. He then attended medical school, graduating from Albany Medical College in Albany, New York, in 1963. He entered the U.S. Naval Reserve on 24 June 1964 as a lieutenant with date of rank from 1 June 1963. He reported for active duty on 5 July 1964.

In July 1964, Lieutenant Sears was assigned to the Naval Hospital, National Naval Medical Center, Bethesda, Maryland, as a resident-in-training and then chief resident. He augmented into the U.S. Navy on 15 October 1964 in the Medical Corps. In July 1967, he was assigned to the Naval Hospital Philadelphia as staff psychiatrist. He was promoted to lieutenant commander in December 1967.
He volunteered to be assigned to hospital ship Repose (AH-16), reporting in December 1967 as head, Neuropsychiatric Branch. Repose had been recommissioned (for the third time) in October 1965, and it operated along the coast of South Vietnam, mostly in the I Corps (northern South Vietnam) area. Known as the “Angel of the Orient,” Repose treated 9,000 battle casualties and 24,000 inpatients during the Vietnam War.

In January 1969, Lieutenant Commander Sears reported to the Naval Regional Medical Center (NRMC), Philadelphia, as medical officer providing neuropsychiatric service and then chairman of the Department of Psychiatry. He was promoted to commander in December 1970. He served as a consultant to the surgeon general for Operation Homecoming (return of U.S. prisoners of war from North Vietnam in 1973), helping create support groups to deal with psychological trauma and family problems.

In February 1976, Commander Sears was assigned to NRMC Portsmouth, Virginia, as chief of psychiatric service. In this position, he created the Special Psychiatric Rapid Intervention Team (SPRINT) as a result of the collision between aircraft carrier John F. Kennedy (CV-67) and guided-missile cruiser Belknap (CG-26) in November 1975; the SPRINT program continues to this day. He was promoted to captain in December 1976.

In August 1979, Captain Sears reported to NRMC San Diego, California, as chief of psychiatric service. There he headed an interagency medical team in support of the American hostages in Iran.

In June 1982, Captain Sears was assigned to NRMC Oakland, California, as director of clinical services. In June 1983, Sears assumed duty as commanding officer of Naval Hospital Oakland. In August 1984, he was assigned to the Office of the Chief of Naval Operations in Washington, DC, as director, Health Care Operations (OP-933). He was promoted to rear admiral (lower half) on 1 November 1984.

In July 1985, Rear Admiral Sears assumed command of Naval Medical Command Southwest in San Diego. He was promoted to rear admiral (two star) on 8 October 1986. In July 1988, Rear Admiral Sears assumed duty as commander of Naval Medical Command and deputy surgeon general. He retired from active duty on 1 November 1989.

Rear Admiral Sears’s awards include the Legion of Merit (three awards), Meritorious Service Medal (two awards), Navy Commendation Medal (two awards), Navy Unit Commendation (two awards), National Defense Service Medal, Antarctica Service Medal, Vietnam Service Medal (one campaign star), Republic of Vietnam Meritorious Unit Citation (Gallantry Cross Color), Republic of Vietnam Meritorious Unit Citation (Civil Actions Color), and Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal.

After retiring from active duty, Rear Admiral Sears worked for Aetna in establishing the Tricare program and served as the first executive director of the Tricare Management Activity, the forerunner of today’s Defense Health Agency. He is the namesake of the Rear Admiral H. James T. Sears Award, awarded annually to the leading mental health provider in the U.S. Navy. He also received the Albany Academy Distinguished Alumnus Award.

Although it is common for sailors to complain about medical care, just watch the uproar when ideas are broached about privatization or otherwise reducing this benefit of the service. The reality is that the medical professionals in the U.S. Navy do an extraordinary job of balancing the competing demands of serving sailors and their families yet being ready to shift to a war footing on little-to-no notice. Rear Admiral Sears was one of those superb professionals. In the words of the Navy’s Bureau of Medicine historian, he “stood out as a leader in health care for active duty and civilians with a focus always on how to improve delivery of high-quality health care services in support of active duty, retired and their family members.”

Sears’s specialty of psychiatry may have been especially challenging due to the propensity of service members who need mental health care but do not admit that they do, until it is too late or almost too late. He volunteered multiple times to assist with events that involved considerable mental stress and even trauma, including the return of U.S. prisoners of war from North Vietnam, the return of U.S. hostages from Iran, of those on Antarctic service, and certainly his time aboard hospital ship Repose during the peak combat years in Vietnam. As a result of the mental trauma suffered by some who experienced the collision of the carrier John F. Kennedy and cruiser Belknap in 1975, he developed the SPRINT program to provide rapidly deployable mental health services in the event of traumatic events, a program that remains in effect today. Even after retirement, he continued to serve our Navy in a leadership role in the establishment and improvement of the Tricare program (gripe all you want, but now that I am in Medicare and have costly premiums, I have an even greater appreciation). Like any other Navy flag officer, Jim’s dedicated service came at a considerable sacrifice in personal and family time, but he truly made a positive difference in the restructuring and improvement in the delivery of military health care. His legacy will live on, and we are truly grateful.

Rest in Peace, Admiral Sears.