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In Memoriam: Rear Admiral Donald L. Sturtz, USN (Ret.)

July 10, 2024 | 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 Rear Admiral (lower half) Donald Lee Sturtz on 15 April 2024 at age 90. Rear Admiral Sturtz entered the U.S. Naval Academy in July 1951 and served as a naval aviator and then in the Medical Corps until his retirement in March 1991 as fleet surgeon for Commander in Chief, U.S. Atlantic Fleet. His commands included serving as the first commanding officer of the medical treatment facility on USNS Mercy (T-AH-19) and Naval Medical Command, National Capitol Region. He volunteered to deploy to the Vietnam War in 1968 and was awarded a Combat Action Ribbon for undergoing mortar fire at the hospital in Da Nang, South Vietnam.

Don Sturtz entered the U.S. Naval Academy on 5 July 1951. According to the Lucky Bag (Naval Academy yearbook), “His big smiles won everyone’s confidence—and friendship. He always had a conscientious approach to his work and spent a great deal of time with various activities of the brigade.” On 3 June 1955, he graduated with distinction and a bachelor of science degree in naval science and was commissioned an ensign.

Selected for naval aviation, Ensign Sturtz chose to defer a year to serve at sea on the destroyer escort Radford (DDE-446), stationed in Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. In July 1956, Ensign Sturtz reported to Naval Air Basic Training Command, Naval Air Station (NAS) Pensacola, Florida, conducting flight training in the T-28 Trojan trainer from Naval Auxiliary Air Station (NAAS) Brewton, Alabama. He was promoted to lieutenant (junior grade) in December 1956. In June 1957, he transferred to NAAS Kingsville, Texas, for jet training in the F9F-5 Panther and F9F-6 Cougar jet fighter/trainers. He was designated a naval aviator on 11 October 1957. In December 1957, he reported to the Naval Aviation Technical Training Unit at NAS Pensacola to the Naval Photographic Reconnaissance School, and then he was assigned to a billet that had nothing to do with photo reconnaissance.

In June 1958, Lieutenant (j.g.) Sturtz reported to Attack Squadron FOUR FOUR (VA-44) “Hornets” as the squadron’s mission changed from light attack to flight training for the new A4D Skyhawk. He conducted jet carrier qualifications aboard attack carrier Franklin Roosevelt (CVA-42) off Guantanamo, Cuba. In December 1958, Sturtz joined VA-83 “Rampagers” at Rio de Janeiro, embarked on attack carrier Essex (CVA-9) returning from a Mediterranean/Indian Ocean/Western Pacific deployment via Cape Horn. He was promoted to lieutenant in June 1959. VA-83 subsequently embarked on attack carrier Forrestal (CVA-59), deploying to the Mediterranean from January to August 1960.

Following return from deployment and well past his obligated service requirement, Sturtz opted to leave the Navy and pursue a career in medicine. On 10 August 1960, his appointment in the U.S. Navy was terminated. The next day, he was appointed in the U.S. Naval Reserve and continued on active duty until he was honorably released on 7 September 1960. He then attended the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. In his senior year, a newly created Navy program enabled him to rejoin the U.S. Naval Reserve with a stipend (and a commitment) to help pay for medical school.

On 13 May 1963, he was appointed an ensign in the U.S. Naval Reserve to rank from 15 April 1963. On 7 June 1964, Ensign Sturtz reported for active duty under instruction at Naval Hospital, Philadelphia. He graduated from the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine in 1965. On 3 June 1965, he was promoted to lieutenant (junior grade) in the U.S. Naval Reserve, Medical Corps, to rank from 24 November 1962, and then to lieutenant to rank from 1 March 1965. (This must have been an interesting promotion ceremony.) In July 1965, Lieutenant Sturtz was assigned as an intern at Naval Hospital, Philadelphia. In July 1966, he continued at Naval Hospital, Philadelphia, as a medical officer. On 2 September 1966, he augmented from the Naval Reserve to the U.S. Navy.

Lieutenant Sturtz volunteered to deploy to Vietnam, serving three months of temporary duty from July to September 1968, the first half at the Naval Hospital, Da Nang, and the second half aboard the hospital ship Sanctuary (AH-17), operating off the northern provinces of South Vietnam. This was a period of high ground combat casualties, as well as periodic Viet Cong infiltration and mortar attacks against Navy facilities at Da Nang, including the hospital. He was awarded a Combat Action Ribbon for this period. He was promoted to lieutenant commander in September 1968.

In July 1970, Lieutenant Commander Sturtz reported to attack carrier America (CVA-66) as assistant medical officer/general surgeon while the carrier was deployed to Yankee Station in the Gulf of Tonkin, returning to homeport for Christmas 1970. He was promoted to commander in December 1970.

In July 1971, Commander Sturtz reported to Naval Hospital, National Naval Medical Center, Bethesda, in staff surgery service. In September 1973, he became general surgeon at Bethesda. He was promoted to captain on 3 June 1976.

In October 1980, Captain Sturtz reported to Naval Regional Medical Center, San Diego, as director and chairman of surgical services. In June 1984, he was assigned to Naval Hospital, Oakland, California, as executive officer and director of medical education.

In October 1985, Sturtz reported to the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences in Bethesda as a professor of surgery. In November 1986, he was competitively selected as prospective commanding officer of the medical treatment facility aboard hospital ship Mercy and would become the first commanding officer in January 1987. Mercy commenced her maiden voyage on 27 February 1987, with a tri-service crew, deploying to the Southwestern Pacific on a humanitarian mission, mostly in the Philippines, steaming 20,000 miles and treating 63,000 patients, for which the ship was awarded a Philippines Presidential Unit Citation. Captain Sturtz was promoted to rear admiral (lower half) on 1 July 1987.

In July 1987, while awaiting a flag officer assignment, Rear Admiral Sturtz returned to the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences as a professor of surgery. In November 1987, he assumed command of the Naval Medical Command, National Capitol Region. In January 1989, he was assigned as fleet surgeon on Commander in Chief, U.S. Atlantic Fleet’s staff with additional duty as senior medical officer for NATO Supreme Allied Command Atlantic and Commander in Chief, U.S. Atlantic Command. He played a significant role in the medical readiness of U.S. Navy ships deploying to the Middle East for Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. Rear Admiral Sturtz retired from active duty on 1 March 1991.

Rear Admiral Sturtz’s awards include the Defense Meritorious Service Medal; Combat Action Ribbon; Navy Unit Commendation (two awards); Meritorious Unit Commendation (three awards); National Defense Service Medal; Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal; Vietnam Service Ribbon (two campaign stars); Philippine Presidential Unit Citation; Republic of Vietnam Gallantry Cross Unit Citation; Republic of Vietnam Civil Actions Unit Citation; Republic of Vietnam Campaign Medal; and Expert Rifle Medal. (Flag officer service transcripts frequently lack the last awards, so it is possible that Rear Admiral Sturtz received a Legion of Merit for his U.S. Atlantic Fleet tour and possibly for his tenure as commanding officer, Naval Medical Command.)

Rear Admiral Sturtz served as governor of the American College of Surgeons and on the Trauma Committee of the American College of Surgeons. Upon his retirement from active duty, he returned to the Uniformed Services University of Health Sciences as the Harrison Shumaker Professor of Surgery, serving in that capacity until his retirement in 2005.

Funeral services will be held at Arlington National Cemetery at a date to be determined.

There are probably few people who could say they were twice an ensign, lieutenant (junior grade), and lieutenant, which goes to show that leadership, skill, dedication, and perseverance matter more than a standard career path. Rear Admiral Sturtz gave up a promising career in naval aviation to pursue another passion: helping people as a member of the medical profession. Even so, he never lost his love of the Navy, and when the opportunity arose with a new Navy program that allowed him to both finish medical school and rejoin the Navy, he seized it, even though it meant starting over as an ensign. He gained early experience in trauma care treating those wounded in the Vietnam War during his first tour at Naval Hospital, Philadelphia. He volunteered to deploy to the Vietnam War at a time of intense ground combat, and he was shoved into a ditch to avoid mortar fire within his first minutes of arrival at Da Nang naval hospital. There he dealt with numerous traumatic casualties that would sometimes come in 30 or 40 at a time, overwhelming even the most experienced of the doctors and nurses. This crucible of experience influenced the rest of his career, as he became one of the Navy’s foremost experts in trauma surgery and care. His leadership and skill were recognized when he was selected to be the first commanding officer of the medical unit on the new hospital ship Mercy, taking the ship on her first mission, one of humanitarian aid, which he found deeply rewarding given his profound religious faith. Much of his Navy career, and after retirement, focused on passing on his knowledge and expertise to future generations of medical professionals, including of all services. His faith and his family sustained him through the sacrifice necessary to serve our nation, for which we should all be grateful, especially the many hundreds, if not thousands, of lives he was directly or indirectly responsible for saving. There is probably no greater reward than that.

Rest in Peace, Admiral Sturtz.