After 25 years in the U.S. Army, Master Sergeant John J. Beall III is coming to a grim realization.
“I have a year left to stop playing soldier and get a real job,” he said. “I’ll have to grow up someday.”
He’s kidding of course, but after a quarter-century of service, Beall has earned the levity as he stares down retirement. But with one daughter in college and another headed there soon, he’s also coming to grips with “not being the parent that takes my kid everywhere.”
“I guess I have to learn a hobby,” Beall said. “But I’m a terrible fisher and I’m worse at golfing.”
It won’t be all that bad. For an imaging professional with a degree in health care administration and a wealth of management experience – Beall is a senior clinical non-commissioned officer at Madigan Army Medical Center on Joint Base Lewis McChord in Lakewood, Washington – there’s likely room for him in a civilian radiology department somewhere between Tacoma and Seattle. If not, he’s also got experience leading pharmacy, lab and X-ray departments, “because I took advantage of what I had the opportunity to do” during his time of service, Beall said.
“It’s been very rewarding,” he said. “I’ve gotten to see the world and learn about different levels of health care that I probably would not have noticed if I had not left Los Angeles. I got to meet a great group of people.”
The depth of experience he’s enjoyed throughout that career came full-circle emotionally for Beall when he was invited to present at the Radiological Society of North America (RSNA) Annual Meeting. His talk focused on the evolution of imaging technology from peacekeeping and wartime medicine over the last 25 years, and as Beall ran down the different makes and models of equipment, he started to think to himself, “I’ve been doing this a little bit too long.”
“In my own mind, I feel I’m still a punk kid who was joining the Army to get a job as a firefighter, and here I am 25 years later, almost done, not realizing that people reach out to me for advice,” Beall said. “It never clicked as to why.”
The West Covina, California native graduated from high school in 1991, and enlisted in the U.S. Army in November of 1994. Like many of his friends, Beall wanted to become a firefighter after the 1992 Los Angeles riots. But the popularity of the job spiked against the emotional backdrop of those events, and it was hard to get a placement. One of the fire chiefs suggested that he join the military for a few years to help bolster his application. After basic training, however, Beall ended up becoming an X-ray technician.
“I thought, ‘X-ray tech, how hard could that be?’ ” he remembered. “And now I was in physics class.”
Something else happened in the military, too: Sonia, the woman he would eventually marry, came into his life. She was from North Jersey, he was from Southern California; they met in the middle, at the St. Louis airport, waiting to catch a bus to basic training.
“We just started talking,” Beall said. “It was first love for me.”
The couple would see each other from across the platoon at Ft. Leonard Wood. From there, they went to medic school in San Antonio, then to X-ray school, and “just started dating somewhere in there,” he said.
Sonia left the service after her first enlistment, and now works as an MRI tech at the University of Washington. Their family grew on military bases in various deployments, and Beall is grateful to his wife for having stuck by his side throughout the tumultuous living conditions that can accompany a military marriage.
“It gave me a sense of direction,” he said. “She’s the real hero; she’s had to follow me around and disrupt her career every four to five years, get a new job, and work her way back up at a new hospital.”
As unexpected as it had been to find romance in the military, Beall’s service was punctuated by moments of other emotional intensity. A year before his first re-enlistment, he found himself in the streets of Sarajevo, picking through war-torn Bosnia on a peacekeeping mission. The experience was critical in his decision to re-up.
“I saw ‘this is what it’s all about,’” he said. “That was another reason I felt a sense of commitment to staying in the military.”
When fighting broke out from Afghanistan to Iraq, Beall was downrange of the conflict in Germany. He served at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center military hospital, tending to wounded soldiers, including famous POW Jessica Lynch and her unit. Caring for them solidified his commitment not only to the work of being a soldier but to the professionalism of a medical career. It’s a benefit he hadn’t considered until recently, when it came up in conversation with a neighbor at Lewis McChord.
“The hospital I work at is where my family gets taken care of,” Beall said. “Everybody here in the military takes care of ourselves. One of my neighbors – he’s an infantry guy – was talking to me, and just said, ‘Thank you; we love that hospital. I’m going to deploy if the army wants me, but knowing that you guys in that hospital are taking care of my family when I’m gone eases my mind. And if we get hurt, we know you’re there to take care of us.’”
“I never really thought about it in that context,” Beall said. “We think about process improvement, patient flows, access to care and he summed up what our job is in that simple thank-you. One of the things I’m probably going to miss the most is being part of that when I retire.”
“If I’m lucky, I can come back as a civilian,” he said.