Obituary: S. Ward Casscells / Pentagon's medical chief, prominent cardiologist

March 18, 1952 - Oct. 14, 2012

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S. Ward Casscells, a nationally prominent cardiologist who astonished himself and those who knew him by joining the Army Reserve at 54 and volunteering to go to Iraq before being appointed the Pentagon's top medical officer, died Oct. 14 in Washington. He was 60.

The cause was complications from prostate cancer, his family said.

Dr. Casscells said his military adventure had begun when he and his 8-year-old son were examining the uniform his father had worn as a combat surgeon in World War II. Dr. Casscells said he had been "filled with shame" when the boy asked him if he, too, had fought for his country, and had to answer no. He had been a student during the Vietnam War.

"This is one heck of a midlife crisis," his wife said when he announced his plan to join the military, in Dr. Casscells' telling. "But in fairness, I realize you can't afford a Maserati, and you don't have the nerve to take a mistress."

So in 2006, Dr. Casscells became a colonel in the Army Reserve. His first assignment was to look for ways to protect troops from avian flu, then a worldwide epidemic. Transferred to Iraq, he was shelled and caught in an ambush. In 2007, President George W. Bush appointed him an assistant secretary of defense, and he went on to lead a $45 billion health and education system with 10 million patients in 100 countries.

Taking office at the Pentagon when evidence was surfacing of shameful conditions at Walter Reed Army Medical Center, Dr. Casscells made unannounced visits to the center's wards as part of a campaign to correct the problems. (It closed in 2011.) He started programs to use stem cells to help treat wounds with patients' own tissue.

Before his time in uniform, Dr. Casscells had held a prestigious chair in medicine and public health at the University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston, where he was also the vice president of external affairs and public policy. He was also a senior scholar at the Texas Heart Institute in Houston.

To join the Army, he had to convince doctors that he was able: He had just gone through five years of chemotherapy and radiation treatment for prostate cancer. Once approved, he traveled to Cairo, Beijing and Bangkok to study avian flu, a disease he had researched.

After going through what he called the "shock and awe" of basic training for reserve officers at Fort Sam Houston -- "I haven't been this tired and intimidated since I was an intern," he said -- he shipped out to Iraq. There he was medical liaison to the United States' commanding general and ambassador.

"Some people as they get older get more conservative," Dr. Casscells said in 2007. "For whatever reason, I just seem to be getting more adventurous."

Samuel Ward Casscells III was born in Wilmington, Del., on March 18, 1952. He graduated from Yale and Harvard Medical School. His father, S. Ward Casscells, was an orthopedic surgeon who had helped invent arthroscopic surgery.

In Houston, Dr. Casscells established ties to the Army when he helped lead disaster preparedness efforts. He helped direct humanitarian relief efforts for Hurricane Katrina and the 2004 Asian tsunami.

Dr. Casscells helped invent medical devices and new techniques in detecting heart attacks and started companies to sell them. He founded a company to compile health data for policymakers. And he was well-published, producing papers on heart attack and stroke, medical ethics, and nanotechnology and writing "When It Mattered Most" (2009), a tribute to medics killed in Iraq and Afghanistan.

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