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In Memoriam: Vice Admiral Michael L. Cowan

Dec. 22, 2023 | By Sam Cox (Rear Adm. USN, Ret.), Director, Naval History and Heritage Command
It is with deep regret that I inform you of the passing of Vice Admiral Michael Lynn Cowan, Medical Corps, U.S. Navy, on 10 December 2023 at age 78. Vice Admiral Cowan was drafted into the U.S. Naval Reserve in June 1971 and served in the Medical Corps until his retirement in October 2004 as director of Navy Medicine, 34th Surgeon General of the Navy, and chief of the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery (BUMED). His commands included Naval Hospital, Camp Lejeune, North Carolina, and the Defense Medical Readiness Training Institute. He was the joint/unified task force surgeon for Operation Restore Hope in Somalia in 1991–1993. 

Michael Cowan graduated from the University of Colorado pre-med program at Boulder and earned his doctorate in 1969 from the Washington University School of Medicine, St. Louis. He then went to Temple University in Philadelphia to study internal medicine and hematology under a world-renowned physician with the intent to pursue a career in academic medicine. However, he was drafted in 1971. He described himself as very “anti-war and anti-military” and going into the Navy “kicking and screaming,” later saying that “everything I thought I knew [about the military] was wrong.” 

He entered the U.S. Naval Reserve as an ensign on 17 June 1971, but with grade backdated to 3 December 1966 for lieutenant junior grade and 1 December 1968 for lieutenant. Accordingly, Lieutenant Cowan reported for active duty on 3 July 1971. He was initially assigned to the Naval Hospital, Camp Lejeune, in dependents’ medical service. In July 1972, Lieutenant Cowan was assigned to the National Naval Medical Center, Bethesda, Maryland, where he served as a resident conducting post-graduate training in internal medicine with a fellowship in hematology and oncology. He would later specialize in internal medicine and hematology. He was promoted to lieutenant commander in December 1972. 

In August 1975, Lieutenant Commander Cowan reported to Naval Regional Medical Center, Jacksonville, Florida, in internal medicine service. In October 1976 he assumed duty as chief of internal medicine at Naval Hospital, Rota, Spain. He was promoted to commander in December 1977. He augmented into the U.S. Navy in May 1978. 

In July 1979, Commander Cowan was assigned to the Naval Medical Research Institute, Bethesda, as a research medical officer, Immunoparasitology Branch, and chief of Clinical Investigations Branch, Malaria Vaccine Research and Development Program. This was the forerunner of today’s Naval Medical Research Command. In July 1982, he was assigned to the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences (USUHS), Bethesda, serving as a professor and vice chairman of the Department of Military Medicine and deputy director of Operational and Emergency Medicine. He led the Bushmaster exercise, an extremely intense program for fourth-year medical students designed to push them to their limits with back-to-back mass casualty and combat scenarios in the field (a program not unlike Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape [SERE] School in its rigor and value). He was promoted to captain in December 1984. 

In October 1985, Captain Cowan reported to Naval Medical Command, Washington, DC, as Medical Corps plans officer, including medical career plans. In June 1986, he attended the National Defense University’s Industrial College of the Armed Forces as a senior research fellow. His research resulted in 10 recommendations for a national response to a California earthquake scenario involving 50,000 casualties that coordinated the efforts of the military, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), U.S. Public Health Service, and Department of Veterans Affairs. His research attracted the attention of the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs (ASD[HA]). As a result, after graduation he was detailed to the Office of the Secretary of Defense as special assistant for national disaster medical systems in ASD(HA). 

In May 1989, Captain Cowan assumed duty as executive officer of Naval Hospital, Beaufort, South Carolina. In July 1991, he was assigned to Commander Naval Surface Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet (NAVSURFPAC) as force medical officer. However, he was soon detailed to serve as joint/unified task force surgeon in Operation Restore Hope, the U.S. contribution to the United Nations mission to provide order and prevent mass starvation in Somalia. He served in this capacity from December 1991 to January 1993 before returning to NAVSURFPAC at Naval Amphibious Base Coronado, California. 

In July 1993, Captain Cowan assumed command of Naval Hospital, Camp Lejeune. In July 1996, he assumed command of the Defense Medical Readiness Training Institute, Fort Sam Houston, San Antonio, Texas. He was promoted to rear admiral (lower half) on 1 January 1997. 

In June 1997, Rear Admiral Cowan as assigned to the Joint Staff Deputy Director for Logistics (J4) in charge of medical readiness. He was promoted to rear admiral (two-star) on 1 September 1998. In July 1999, Rear Admiral Cowan assumed duty as chief of staff for the Assistant Secretary of Defense for Health Affairs. In June 2000, he became deputy executive director, TRICARE Management Activity.

In August 2001, Rear Admiral Cowan became Director of Naval Medicine and 34th Surgeon General of the Navy (N093), as well as chief of the Bureau of Medicine and Surgery. In this capacity, he led the Navy medical response to the terrorist attacks of 9/11, including the deployment of hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH-20) to New York City in the aftermath of the attack. He was promoted to vice admiral on 1 October 2001, and continued to lead the Navy medical response to the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Among many other things, he changed the motto of the Medical Corps from “Standing By to Assist” to “Steaming to Assist” (which was actually a better description of the Medical Corps long before 9/11). Vice Admiral Cowan retired on 1 October 2004. 

Vice Admiral Cowan’s awards include the Defense Superior Service Medal; Legion of Merit (two awards); Defense Meritorious Service Medal; Meritorious Service Medal (two awards); Joint Service Commendation Medal; Navy Commendation Medal; Public Health Service Commendation Medal; Joint Meritorious Unit Award; Meritorious Unit Commendation; National Defense Service Medal (two awards); Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal; Navy Overseas Service Ribbon; Expert Rifleman Medal; Expert Pistol Shot Medal; and the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences (USUHS) Outstanding Service Medal. He was also entitled to wear the Army Expert Field Medical Badge. Although not reflected in his service transcript, he almost certainly would have been awarded a Navy Distinguished Service Medal for his last tour of duty. 

After retiring from active duty, Vice Admiral Cowan worked for 10 years as a consultant in healthcare information technology for Oracle, Inc.; Bearing Point, Inc.; and Deloitte, LPP, before becoming executive director of AMSUS, the Society of Federal Health Professionals, retiring from there in 2017. 

According to the BUMED historian André Sobocinski, Vice Admiral Cowan’s “career legacy includes pioneering the concept of Force Health Protection, redefining deployable medicine in the 21st century, and serving as Navy Surgeon General during the attacks on 11 September 2001 and the start of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.” He was known for his humble leadership and his trust of others. His own words to exhausted medical students pushed to their limit in the Bushmaster exercise are of particular note: “So why do you it? You do it because the guy on the stretcher is depending on you to do it. And his family back home is depending on you to do it. And it’s the right thing to do.” Vice Admiral Cowan’s thoughts on life and career are also worth reading: “Your life finds you more often than you find your life. Had I not been drafted I never would have come into the military…but this detour happened and it became a better life…. My whole life found me almost against my will.” His career advice to junior officers was, “Just don’t worry about it. The one thing you must do in your life is do your job. No matter what job you’ve got, do the hell out of it and then position yourself to try to get jobs you enjoy doing. If you enjoy a job, you’ll do well; if you don’t enjoy your work, then life isn’t worth living.” As Rear Admiral Darin Via (40th Surgeon General of the Navy) summed up, “Admiral Cowan was a soft-spoken, caring, and impactful leader who always saw the bigger picture and thought outside the box. He was always way ahead of his time and Navy Medicine is stronger for it.” I would only add that the Navy is stronger for it. We thank Vice Admiral Cowan and his family for their service and sacrifice on behalf of our freedom. 

Rest in Peace, Admiral Cowan.