Once an orphan with an uncertain future, Lt. Gen. Nadja Y. West transformed herself into a person willing to do whatever she could do – a model of confidence that made her one of the faces of black excellence.
A trailblazer, West overcame the excruciating barriers she faced as an orphan to become the first female African-American three-star general in US Army history, the first black Army Surgeon General, and the highest-ranking woman to graduate from West Point.
West was two when she was adopted by a military family with 11 other adopted children in Washington, DC. She was the youngest of 12 children adopted by her father who joined the military in 1935 and served for more than 30 years.
“I went from an orphan with an uncertain future to be able to be leading an incredible organization of men and women in Army medicine. It’s very humbling,” West said.
“My mom decided that she couldn’t take care of me or didn’t want to take care of me,” West said. “I’m just very thankful that she decided to give me a chance at life because you could have had other options.”
The Washington DC area native went ahead to receive a Bachelor of Science in Engineering from the United States Military Academy at West Point and a Doctorate of Medicine from George Washington University School of Medicine.
She then completed her internship and residency in Family Medicine at Martin Army Hospital, Fort Benning, GA, where she was deployed to Operation Desert Shield with the 197th Infantry BDE, 24th ID, and was attached to the 2/69th Armor BN during Desert Storm.
West then served at Blanchfield Army Hospital, Fort Campbell, KY as a staff family physician and then Officer in Charge of the Aviation Medicine Clinic. She also participated in a medical mission with the 5th Special Forces Group (Airborne).
After she completed a second residency in dermatology at Fitzsimons Army Medical Center and University of Colorado Medical Center in Denver, CO, West then served as Chief, Dermatology Service at Heidelberg Army Hospital, Germany.
West further served as Division Surgeon of the 1st AD, Bad Kreuznach, Germany; deploying to the former Yugoslavian Republic of Macedonia and Kosovo as Deputy Task Force Surgeon.
West retired last year as the head of Army Medical Command, after becoming the 44th Army Surgeon General in December 2015.
“We’re part of a family business whose longevity isn’t measured in decades, but in centuries. We’re part of a noble tradition that has been caring for wounded, relieving suffering, healing ailments, protecting health, developing new cures, and preventing disease,” West said during her retiring ceremony. “It is really mind-boggling to me that I had the opportunity to be a leader of it for just a small sliver of our timeline.”