Life and Leadership Lessons I Learned In The Military: “The influence of the Airborne’s culture, which is to drop in behind enemy lines and find a way to succeed or expect to die, changes the way you face all challenges in life.” with Darren J. Sommer DO, MBA, MPH and Marco Dehry
There is zero doubt in my mind that my military service has prepared me for business. I was a college drop-out before the military who then went on to become a physician and earn an MBA from Duke. I was a young and inexperienced physician whose combat deployment experiences allowed him to create a technology company. The influence of the Airborne’s culture, which is to drop in behind enemy lines and find a way to succeed or expect to die, changes the way you face all challenges in life. I now meet every obstacle in my life with the expectation that failure is not an option. That is an extremely beneficial trait for someone in a startup business.
As a part of my series about “Life and Leadership Lessons Learned In The Military”, I had the pleasure of interviewing Darren J. Sommer DO, MBA, MPH. Dr. Darren J. Sommer was awarded his Doctor of Osteopathic Medicine and Masters of Public Health degrees from Nova Southeastern University College of Osteopathic Medicine in 2003. He completed his Internal Medicine Residency at University Community Hospital in Largo, Florida in 2006. He later went on to complete his MBA with Health Sector Management Certification from Duke’s Fuqua School of Business in 2011 and is a Health Policy Fellow with the American Osteopathic Association. Dr. Sommer is a member of the American Osteopathic Association (AOA), Ohio Osteopathic Association (OOA), Fellow of the American College of Osteopathic Internists (ACOI), Fellow of the Society of Hospital Medicine (SHM), and a Certified Physician Executive (CPE). Dr. Sommer has served on the ACOI’s technology council, the AMA’s Telemedicine Coding Committee and is the past President of the Columbus Osteopathic Association. And, as a combat veteran, he also continues to work with wounded veterans as a medical advisor to the Resurrecting Lives Foundation. Currently, Dr. Sommer is the CEO of Innovator Health, a healthcare technology company based in Jonesboro, AR. Innovator Health provides simple yet personal telemedicine technology that is focused on bridging the healthcare gaps for medically underserved communities. Dr. Sommer is also an Assistant Professor of Medicine and Technology with NYITCOM at Arkansas State University. His work with NYITCOM includes the creation of the first telemedicine training program nationwide for 1st and 2nd-year medical students. Previous positions include service as a physician with the US Army’s 82nd Airborne Division serving as both a Brigade Surgeon and Flight Surgeon. His military career spans more than 20 years of service, completing two combat deployments and earning numerous decorations including the Bronze Star, Combat Medic Badge and the Combat Action Badge. After completing his active duty service, Dr. Sommer went on to serve as the Medical Director of the Hospitalist Program at Southeastern Regional Medical Center in Lumberton, NC. He later led as the Senior Vice President of Hospitalist Services with Premier Physicians Services in Dayton, Ohio.
Thank you so much for doing this with us! Can you tell us a bit about your childhood “backstory”?
I grew up in a middle-class family in Los Angeles, California. I always dreamed of working in the field of law enforcement. It was my nature to want to help people. I knew a college education was a must for a career in law enforcement, so I enrolled, despite my history of not being the best student.
Within a year, I had dropped out of college and needed to refocus my life. I heard about the US Coast Guard, and living in LA, I was not too far from a USCG recruiter. When I met with the recruiter, he showed me videos of chasing drug dealers and all of the other exciting roles the Coast Guard serves. I was instantly hooked!
My recruiter told me something the day that I enlisted that I have gone back to my entire life. He said, “The Coast Guard is going to be what you make of it.” He was right, and I took advantage of every training opportunity the Coast Guard gave me. Eventually, I realized his words also applied to everything I would do in my life.
By October of 1991, I was off to Coast Guard basic training. It was tough, but I loved it. I did well and graduated near the top of my class, which meant you had more duty assignments to choose from. I picked an 82’ patrol boat out of Nokomis, Florida. Imagine being 19 years old, living where people only dream of vacationing and getting paid to do what you love. It was going to be perfect, but at the last minute my orders got changed, and I was assigned to the “Group” in St Petersburg, FL. The Group is a term the Coast Guard used to describe a base that supports units dispersed across the state. It meant I was more likely to be painting buildings than law enforcement.
I arrived in St. Petersburg, FL in January of 1992, and it was every bit as beautiful as I imagined it. I had made up my mind during the bus ride over that the first thing I was going to do was request to be stationed on a ship. When I presented my orders to the yeoman, I said, “I don’t care which ship you put me on, just put on a ship.” He patiently replied back, “Don’t worry son, you are going to be stationed on the Vise.”
When he told me that, my eyes lit up because when he said the Vise, I heard “V I C E” like Miami Vice. I was immediately having visions of chasing drug runners up and down the west coast of Florida in a go-fast boat. As I looked out the window behind the yeoman at the line of ships in the bay, I enthusiastically asked which ship was the Vice? He turned around and said that one right there as he pointed out the window. It was a tug boat with the crane on it.
I wasn’t appreciating at the time the distinction between the Vise and the Vice. I remember calling home later that day and talking to my mom. I told her I thought I made a huge mistake. Turns out it was the best decision I made thus far in my young life. The Coast Guard helped me develop a strong work ethic. I learned that I could accomplish anything if I worked hard enough and that has been carried forward my entire life. Eventually, the Coast Guard sent me to EMT school. I fell in love with the field of medicine, and I have never looked back.
And what are you doing today? Can you share a story that exemplifies the unique work that you are doing?
I finished serving with the Coast Guard just before starting medical school in 1999. I wasn’t out of the military long before I realized just how much I missed it. I decided I wanted to keep serving, so during medical school, I joined the Florida Army National Guard. It felt great to put the uniform back on, and I enjoyed learning about a new branch of the military.
Then we had September 11th. It really bothered me to see what happened and watch my friends deploy to defend our great country. I decided that when I was done with my training, I was going to back on active duty.
In the summer of 2006, I graduated from my residency on a Friday and then Saturday morning drove my family to Fort Bragg, North Carolina. If I was going to serve, I wanted to serve with the best, so I joined the 82nd Airborne Division. We spent the next six months training for a deployment to Afghanistan, and in January of 2007, I kissed my family goodbye, and I was on a plane to South Central Asia. I spent the next 15 months serving all over the southeastern part of Afghanistan.
It was my time in Afghanistan that really shaped my future. I was still a relatively inexperienced physician, and I was taking care of some very sick patients, in some very austere environments. Patients with conditions that I did not get exposed to in my civilian residency. The Army had an excellent communications infrastructure that allowed me to use technology to reach out to other physicians in Afghanistan, the US, and around the world. Their mentorship helped me to make better clinical decisions. It was my first exposure to telemedicine.
When I returned home in early 2008, I had the opportunity to practice the field of medicine I was trained in. I began to do some moonlighting in a rural community hospital about an hour from our North Carolina home. I found myself facing some of the same clinical challenges I did in Afghanistan, but this time there was no telemedicine infrastructure to assist. This meant that every patient, who need a clinical service not available in this rural hospital, had to get transferred somewhere else for their care. This was devastating for the patient, their family, the hospital and the community. I kept asking myself why telemedicine wasn’t being used here in America like it was being used in Afghanistan.
I decided I wanted to learn more about the field of telemedicine and how it might be a new business opportunity for me to pursue. So I enrolled at the Duke, Fuqua School of Business, where I earned my MBA and Health Sector Management Certification. I began speaking on the topic of telemedicine and how it could be used to improve access to care, decrease costs and keep our rural communities healthier.
However, there was still something missing. As a physician, I saw the value of how technology could help patients, but I was concerned about how technology was impeding the patient/physician relationship. I set out to create a technology that would deliver a life-like experience for patient’s and allow them to receive the care they deserved in the communities where they lived. This was the birth of Innovator Health.
Innovator Health offers health systems the ability to export their physicians in their life-size form, with direct eye contact, and in 3-D. It is as close to teleportation as humanly possible, and the technology literally disappears leaving just the relationship between the patient and physician. Best of all we do this on a HIPAA compliant proprietary cloud platform that transmits the calls at an industry bandwidth that is so low, it flawlessly functions on 4G cellular networks. This is incredibly important for our rural communities with limited connectivity.
The need to have more personal telemedicine technologies was highlighted this past week when a family lost their father/grandfather and the news came from a doctor speaking to them on a telemedicine robot (link). The family posted the experience to Face Book and then it went viral.
We now have the Innovator Health technologies deployed to more than two dozen sites in North Eastern Arkansas. Our systems are being used to help thousands of rural patients each year. It has been extremely gratifying to create something that is making a difference in people’s lives.
Can you tell us a bit about your military background?
I joined the US Coast Guard at age 19 and was stationed in St. Petersburg, FL. I stayed on active duty for two and a half years and then transitioned into the US Coast Guard Reserves after President Clinton was elected and began downsizing the military. I stayed in the Coast Guard reserves for another three and a half years before starting medical school. I reached the rank of E-5 during my Coast Guard service along with numerous awards and commendations. This is also where I received my EMT training that ignited my health professions career.
Since there really wasn’t a place for physicians in the Coast Guard, I decided to try another branch of service when I rejoined the military during medical school. I began as a reservist with the Florida Army National Guard and then transitioned to active duty in the summer of 2006. I was the first Battalion Surgeon to serve in the 82nd Airborne Division since Vietnam and deployed with the 82nd Airborne Division’s 4th Brigade Combat to Afghanistan. During that time, I earned a Bronze Star, Combat Medic Badge and Combat Action Badge. After returning home in 2008, I transitioned to be the Brigade Surgeon for the 2nd Brigade Combat Team. While there, I had a chance to earn my Parachutist Badge and get frocked (promoted early) to Major.
I left active duty in December of 2009, and I have been serving as an Army Reservist ever since. I am currently a Lieutenant Colonel and preparing for my third deployment as a reservist this summer. I have a son on active duty in the US Coast Guard and another son with his eyes on West Point. I plan to stay in another ten years, and I don’t look forward to the day when I can no longer wear the uniform and serve my country.
Can you share the most interesting story that you experienced during your military career? What “take away” did you learn from that story?
During my time in Afghanistan, I had the opportunity to participate in a number of medical missions within Afghan communities. A big part of developing local rapport with a host nation involves the medical field. It was not uncommon for us to go into a community clinic or hospital and work with local physicians on how healthcare delivery could be improved. This was a real eye-opening experience.
First of all, it is challenging to have US physicians deliver direct care to local populations. Although providing direct care has the best of intentions, it typically undermines the credibility of host nation medical assets. There was also a lot for us to learn about delivering care in a third world country. As an example, there is no refrigeration in many Afghan homes, so medications requiring cool temperatures like certain types of insulins cannot be stored or prescribed.
There were also no dispensing pharmacies like the US. If a patient needed a blood pressure medicine, the doctor wrote down the name and the patient picked it up from a local store. And in many cases, the purchased medication was a fake containing a placebo. Because many Afghans did not have experience with taking medications, some thought that if a small dose was going to be good for you, then a large dose was better.
Working alongside Afghan physicians to better understand how they managed their patient populations and collaborate on best practices was exceptionally rewarding for us and for them. There are an incredible number of diseases and conditions we only learned about in textbooks. Afghan doctors have been managing these conditions their entire career.
Something that I was able to share with my Afghan colleagues was the practice of osteopathic manipulative medicine. The principles of laying hands on, diagnosing and treating musculoskeletal conditions was well received. Basic techniques were simple to learn, did not require expensive testing — and the results were immediate. The Afghan doctors learned it quickly and there was no shortage of patients with bone and joint pain to work on. (pic below)
I’m interested in fleshing out what a hero is. Did you experience or hear about a story of heroism, during your military experience? Can you share that story with us? Feel free to be as elaborate as you’d like.
A hero is someone who does the right thing no matter the consequences. I worked with heroes every day. Some that I worked with received high accolades like the Silver Star or Purple Heart but most of the heroes I worked with never even received a thank you. These were the soldiers that gave blood when we had a MASCAL, volunteered for patrols so their battle buddy could get rest or risked their lives to ensure America stayed safe, and Afghanistan could be free. This is why when you see a veteran, always thank them for their service. They have been a hero to someone.
Based on your military experience, can you share with our readers 5 Leadership or Life Lessons that you learned from your experience”? (Please share a story or example for each.)
1. Never quit. I was not the best student, and I tried a lot of different things growing up like sports, playing an instrument or clubs. When I got frustrated with my lack of progress or bored, I quit. This caused me to have a lack of confidence in my ability to accomplish personal goals before my military service. It took me a long time to realize the difference between failure and success was my effort. Now, I take on tasks with the full confidence that I will succeed regardless of the size or challenge of the task facing me.
2. Lead by example. Your team has to know what you are asking of them is something that you have and would do yourself. If the team doubts that, they will likely not perform as expected.
3. Don’t complain. If you see something that is not right, fix it. I watched mentors in the medical field complain about how terrible the medical profession was becoming. I witnessed very few mentors share their stories about how their efforts made it better for the next generation. I decided early on that if I saw a problem, I was going to work on the solution or not complain about it.
4. Be patient. When I jump to a conclusion about a problem, it causes other issues. Patience can be practiced and has many rewards.
5. Have self-awareness. It has taken me a long time to learn my faults and how they adversely impact my ability to get things done. Someone once told me that if you hear a horn honk at you while you are driving, it might be your driving, or it just might be them. When you hear a lot of horns honking at you, it is probably you.
Do you think your time in the military helped prepare you for business? Can you explain?
There is zero doubt in my mind that my military service has prepared me for business. I was a college drop-out before the military who then went on to become a physician and earn an MBA from Duke. I was a young and inexperienced physician whose combat deployment experiences allowed him to create a technology company.
The influence of the Airborne’s culture, which is to drop in behind enemy lines and find a way to succeed or expect to die, changes the way you face all challenges in life. I now meet every obstacle in my life with the expectation that failure is not an option. That is an extremely beneficial trait for someone in a startup business.
As you know, some people are scarred for life by their experience in the military. How did you struggle after your deployment was over? What have you done to adjust and thrive in civilian life that others may want to emulate?
What is interesting about how I have changed since my combat deployments is how insidious the emotional evolution is. I thought I was the same person before and after, but I wasn’t.
I remember going to a mall a few days after returning home with my wife and her family. I felt anxious and claustrophobic being around all of these people. To this day, I don’t like being around crowds. My wife still tells me I am more serious and some of the joy and humor have gone. She is right.
But I have been able to deal with these changes by staying busy and focusing on personal goals. I have a tendency to not dwell on the past, which really helps. It has also helped me to develop relationships with fellow veterans, especially in business. Organizations like Bunker Labs, a resource for veteran entrepreneurs, allows me to interact socially and professionally with others who can relate to a similar past.
Are you working on any exciting new projects now? How do you think that will help people?
Yes, things are coming full circle for me now. Innovator Health was recently awarded a SBIR contract with the US Air Force and we are applying for our second one. If awarded, we will build a battle-hardened version of our technology that can be used in austere environments for the military. The thought that I might create something that can save lives on the battlefield is incredibly gratifying.
What advice would you give to other leaders to help their team to thrive?
Never quit! Obstacles on your journey are signs from God that you need to reevaluate your current course and look for other solutions. They are not signs of giving up. I believe the only difference between successful entrepreneurs and the rest of the world is persistence.
What advice would you give to other leaders about the best way to manage a large team?
Lead by example, create a culture that embraces brutally honest feedback and surround yourself with people smarter than you.
None of us are able to achieve success without some help along the way. Is there a particular person who you are grateful towards who helped get you to where you are? Can you share a story about that?
Many people in my life can be named here, but my wife is on top of that list. She has had to endure numerous relocations and an absentee husband. Between medical school, residency, military training, and deployments, I am sure that I have missed four to five years of our more than 20 years of marriage. It has not been easy on her or the kids. Starting a business hasn’t helped that statistic either. She has been a trooper through it all.
How have you used your success to bring goodness to the world?
I believe that I have and will continue to do so. I have dedicated the last decade of my life serving in rural and medically underserved communities. Innovator Health focuses on using telemedicine technologies to expand access to care for rural communities. I also personally use the Innovator Health technologies to see thousands of patients in rural North Eastern Arkansas every year.
You are a person of great influence. If you could inspire a movement that would bring the most amount of good to the most amount of people, what would that be? You never know what your idea can trigger. :-)
I want to inspire healthcare leaders to take a more meaningful chance on telemedicine. Most healthcare leaders see only niche uses for telemedicine and are reluctant to risk investing capital unless they are sure of its return on investment. The field of telemedicine is still more like a start-up business with a lot of risk, despite its more than 40 years of history. There will be winners and losers, but in time, the investments made into the field of telemedicine will spark revolution and change. This change will have a profound benefit for the medically underserved.
Can you please give us your favorite “Life Lesson Quote”? Can you share how that was relevant to you in your life?
My favorite quote is, “Leadership is the art of getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.” This quote by Eisenhower is brilliant.
Early in my military career, I would just tell people what to do. When things didn’t get done, or get done correctly, I would become frustrated. I was under the impression that because I was a higher rank that’s how things were supposed to work. What I had to learn was how to ask for things in a more sophisticated way. I had to understand who I was talking to and what their value proposition was as it related to what I needed to get done. Based on that understanding, I now approach different situations in a more personalized way. I get a lot more done now too.
Some of the biggest names in Business, VC funding, Sports, and Entertainment read this column. Is there a person in the world, or in the US with whom you would love to have a private breakfast or lunch with, and why? He or she might just see this if we tag them :-)
I would love to meet Kevin O’Leary (AKA Mr. Wonderful). He can get a bad rap on TV for his honest and straight forward approach, but that’s what I love about him. Just tell me what I’m doing wrong so I can fix and continue to try to change the world. Mostly though, I am impressed by how he is a family man above all else, despite his fame and fortune. I would love to learn more about him and share my business with him over a meal. I’m sure his feedback would be, well, “wonderful.”
Thank you so much for these amazing insights. This was truly uplifting.