The Doctor Is Armed

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LINDA SEGER SALAZAR/ARIZONA DAILY STAR/AP

On a September evening in 1999, Dr. Richard Carmona was driving to a University of Arizona football game in Tucson when he came across a traffic accident. A pickup truck had rear-ended a car. Carmona, a trauma surgeon and deputy sheriff on the local swat team, started to approach the truck when bystanders shouted that the driver had a gun. Carmona, who was off duty but carrying a pistol, called for backup and moved in, asking the driver to put down his weapon. The man was a mentally ill ex-convict who had murdered his father that day. He looked at Carmona, started to put down the gun, then suddenly fired at the doctor, grazing his head. Carmona fired seven shots, hitting him three times and killing him.

That's not the sort of action-hero exploit one usually finds on the resume of a U.S. Surgeon General. So when President Bush introduced Carmona as his nominee for the job last week, the choice made quite an impression. The Hispanic surgeon, 52, was largely unknown beforehand, unlike his predecessors, who usually came from high positions in government or academia. But with experience in emergency management, bioterrorism and law enforcement, this Western lawman had exactly what Bush was looking for in a Surgeon General in the aftermath of 9/11.

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The made-for-TV shootout is just one chapter in a remarkable biography. "When they read his resume, I couldn't believe it," said a senior White House aide. "It just kept going." Carmona grew up in Harlem and dropped out of high school at 17. He joined the Army and served as a medic in Vietnam, eventually becoming a decorated Green Beret. After finishing his Army service and earning his GED, he went to college and medical school at the University of California, San Francisco. In 1985 he moved to Tucson and started the area's first trauma-care program. Since one stressful job apparently wasn't enough for Carmona, he joined the Pima County sheriff's office as a doctor and swat team member in 1986. "I doubt he's ever slept," says Sheriff Clarence Dupnik. "He doesn't have that in his nature."

Carmona became interested in terrorist and biological threats several years ago, lecturing and advising in emergency drills around the country. "He was the first person I know who was preaching about bioterrorism and becoming prepared in case something happened," says battalion chief Les Caid of the Tucson fire department. "He was a voice in the wilderness for a few years." After Sept. 11 he was put in charge of implementing bioterror and emergency-preparedness plans for southern Arizona. That makes him a welcome new team member for a White House that has struggled on homeland security. Carmona will be in charge of the Commissioned Corps, 5,600 public-health officers who stand ready to handle national emergencies. And in the event of any future bioterrorism threats, Carmona will probably be the Administration's spokesman--presumably a more reassuring one than the sometimes shaky Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson.

Yet there are some job hazards Carmona may not be so prepared for. His record as an administrator is mixed. After he took over Pima County's struggling public-health-care system in 1997, it continued to lose millions of dollars, and he was forced to resign. What's more, his views on such potentially explosive issues as abortion and fetal-tissue research are not yet known. (The Administration says his views are similar to the President's.) On the other hand, Surgeons General often face unexpected crises--and respond in unexpected ways. Ronald Reagan chose pediatric surgeon C. Everett Koop in 1981 for his solid pro-life credentials. But when AIDS emerged in the '80s, Koop surprised the skeptics by being the one Reagan official to respond to the crisis with aggressive measures.

One thing seems certain: Carmona won't be fazed by an emergency. After a medevac helicopter crashed into the side of a mountain in 1992, he saved the only survivor by dangling from another chopper on a rope, hooking the wounded paramedic to himself and carrying him to safety three miles away. Match that, Dr. Koop.