A Salute to Our Heroes

Today, as we observe Veterans Day, it is a time for deep reflection and appreciation for all who have served in uniform. Across Steward Health Care, we have hundreds of colleagues who, before dedicating themselves to the care of our patients and communities, answered the call of duty to our nation.

Our veterans embody the highest ideals of selflessness, sacrifice, strength of character, courage, integrity, honor, and valor. Many also experience seen and unseen physical and emotional burdens, yet their devotion to the care of others remains unwavering. We are proud to count you among our Steward Family.

For those who have served, the continuing fight against the COVID-19 pandemic elicits numerous parallels to their military service. Their tenacity of spirit and camaraderie are among the many qualities they have relied upon to persevere during difficult moments. There are countless examples of service from our Steward Family veterans, and we are privileged to share a few of their profiles on this important day. Please read below to learn more about the journeys of Darren Hall (Occupational Therapist, Texas Vista Medical Center), Michael Prokopis (SVP, Supply Chain, Steward Health Care) and Dr. Veronica Santee, (SMG Family Medicine Physician, Sharon, PA).

We thank you and we salute you.

Darren Hall, U.S. Army, Occupational Therapist, Texas Vista Medical Center

E-7 Sergeant First Class Darren Hall
E-7 Sergeant First Class Darren Hall

Darren Hall is an occupational therapist at Texas Vista Medical Center in San Antonio, TX, who joined the team in 2010. He received his medical training in Occupational Therapy in the U.S. Army and was inspired by his family to pursue this field.

“I like Occupational Therapy for the simple reason of giving people their independence back,” he said. “I had a lot of sick members of my family and enjoyed helping them get better and gain back their independence.”

Darren served in the Army from 1986 to 2009, first as a reservist who later transitioned to active duty. He underwent Basic Training at Fort Bliss, TX, and his tour of duty took him to numerous bases, including Fort Gordon, in Georgia, where he was the Non-Commissioned Officer in Charge (NCOIC) of the Department of Surgery. Darren also deployed to Seoul, South Korea, from March 2000 to March 2001. He retired in 2009 with the rank of E-7 Sergeant First Class, completing his service as the NCOIC based at Fort Sam Houston, in San Antonio, at the Army Institute of Surgical Research Rehab Services at Brooke Army Medical Center.

Throughout his military career, he received 12 Army awards, including the Meritorious Service Medal, the Army Commendation Medal 4th Award, the Army Achievement Medal 3rd Award, the Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, and the Military Outstanding Volunteer Service Medal.

Darren is a highly regarded member of the team at Texas Vista Medical Center and his military service and training have played a crucial role as he worked throughout the pandemic, particularly as the first COVID-19 surge struck Texas.

“Lead from the front,” he said. “[My service] gave me the fortitude and gave me the understanding of ‘take care of your patients and the people around you.’ All the stuff we worked on and trained on, when the pandemic came, we had to put it to use.”

This Veterans Day, Darren’s thoughts are with those who are in uniform and those who serve on the health care front lines. “I want to give a salute to all my fellow soldiers and veterans,” he said. “I’d also like to say to all those people who got up in the morning [during the pandemic]– mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers – to me they are veterans. This was a war, too. It’s not over, and we’re still fighting it.”

Michael Prokopis, U.S. Navy, Senior Vice President, Supply Chain, Steward Health Care

Lieutenant Junior Grade Michael Prokopis, left, aboard the USS Iowa
Lieutenant Junior Grade Michael Prokopis, left, aboard the USS Iowa

This summer, Michael Prokopis built an 8,000-piece LEGO model of the USS Iowa, a labor of love that took hundreds of hours to complete. He built the model of the World War II era battleship from online blueprints, meticulously sourcing the parts. The stunning masterpiece is displayed in his home office and serves as a tribute to all who served aboard, including 47 crewmen who lost their lives in a live gunnery exercise accident in her second sixteen-inch gun turret on April 19, 1989.

Michael, who serves as Steward Health Care’s SVP of Supply Chain, joined the U.S. Navy at age 23. He was the first Ensign in the history of the USS Iowa to qualify as Surface Warfare and Underway Officer of the Deck. And, on that fateful day more than 30 years ago, he was the Fire Control and Main Battery officer – the individual who gave the orders for the gun turret exercise.

“You don’t get to walk away from those decisions,” he said. “You hope you come out stronger when it’s all said and done.”

For many years, he never spoke about the accident and suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder for which he received care through the Veterans Administration. “It’s been a lot to process over the years,” he said. “We always feel responsible for our men, especially in the event of accidents and catastrophes.”

The USS Iowa was decommissioned in 1990 and Michael went on to serve on the USS San Jacinto as Navigator and Personnel Officer. The San Jacinto secured its place in history when it launched the first Tomahawk cruise missiles ever fired in combat during Operation Desert Storm. After being honorably discharged in December of 1991, Michael had an inactive duty reserve clause through 2011, which means he could have been called to once again serve at any time.

Michael’s time in the Navy shaped his pathway as a leader, especially during the pandemic. It also instilled a deeply-held sense of solidarity: If his Supply Chain teams were up at 2 a.m. moving deliveries of PPE, he was awake and working with them. He also required staff to be at the office working. “If our clinicians had to be in their offices working, I wanted my teams to be in the office working,” he said.

The USS Iowa now serves as a museum battleship in Long Beach, CA. Michael has returned there, time and time again, for reunions. His Naval experience and training continue to serve as his compass.

“It’s transcendent. It became a part of who I am as a person and who I am as a leader,” he said. “Every single person who has ever been wounded or walked in the desert with a rucksack on their back, I just have a tremendous amount of respect for – we all put in a lot of blood, sweat, and tears.”

Major Veronica Santee
Major Veronica Santee

When she was a student at New York University School of Medicine, Veronica Santee, MD, found her calling while completing an Active Duty Training rotation with a Family Medicine doctor at a clinic in West Point, NY.  Caring for expectant mothers, newborns, young children, and older patients gave her the 360-degree vision of what “being a doctor” meant to her.

Dr. Santee joined the U.S. Army through the Health Professions Scholarship Program, which supported her medical studies in return for her time in the service. She completed her residency at the Madigan Medical Center at Fort Lewis in Washington and then served four years at Fort Polk in Louisiana, just before the start of Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan in 2001 and the Second Persian Gulf War in Iraq in 2003. Overall, she spent four years as a reservist, seven years on Active Duty and another four years in the Individual Ready Reserve. Dr. Santee attained the rank of Major before her honorable discharge.

“I got to take care of veterans, active-duty soldiers, and retirees, and I delivered babies of active-duty soldiers. It was really rewarding,” Dr. Santee said. “It really is a privilege to be someone’s doctor because they let you into their life.”

Military service runs deep in the family. Her father served as a Corporal in the renowned 101st Airborne Division during the Korean War, spending two years in France. Her mother, an immigrant from the Philippines, served 10 years with the U.S. Army Reserve Nursing Corps, attaining the rank of Major. Dr. Santee’s maternal grandfather was as an officer in the Philippine Army during World War II, and her oldest son, Travis Williams, is currently on active duty, serving as a Second Lieutenant Field Artillery Officer with the U.S. Army. Dr. Santee’s husband also attained the rank of Major in the Army through the Health Professions Scholarship Program – his family’s service dates to his great-great-grandfather, Private J. Allshouse, who was a bugler at Gettysburg and has his name inscribed on a monument at the National Park.

“Our family is big into paying back our country for all the advantages you get for being an American,” Dr. Santee said. “I have such respect for people who have been to war. There are some people who sacrifice more than others, and I really appreciate those who have sacrificed for this country.”

Dr. Santee says serving in the Army shaped her in many ways and provided her with the opportunity to see different parts of the country as well as receive an introduction to and understanding of rural medicine while serving in Louisiana. These experiences help her live the mission of being a physician.

“It reminds me of a sense of service. As a physician, I’m there to serve my patients,” she said. “As an Army officer, I was there to serve my country. The work I do is in service to other people. It reminds you of humility. It’s like the Golden Rule: You treat other people the way you want to be treated, and you’re working to serve something greater than yourself.”