Padman Menon wandered into the Navy by accident. The only thing that came close to a military connection in his background was a stint in the National Cadet Corps. He had come to the U.S. to study pediatrics after graduating from the Medical College in Calicut in the south Indian state of Kerala. As an immigrant doctor in the 70s he had to register at the post office and was supposed to fill a form for selective enlistment. By the time he realized that and asked if he needed to do it, the draft was gone and he did not need to. But the government kept calling him. “They were on my back for six months,” he says amusedly. “Finally I thought OK. Let me give it a try.”
He was assigned to the Naval Hospital in Lemoore in California. Three years after joining the military he became a citizen. In those days the relationship between India and the U.S. was cool at best. In 1971 during the Bangladesh war of Independence, not only had Washington sided with Pakistan, it had even sent a fleet to the Indian Ocean when India and Pakistan went to war. What if it were to happen again? Menon does not hesitate. “Now I am American. No matter what, you have to fight for your country.” After all, Capt. Menon was part of the medical detail assigned to support President Ronald Reagan during inauguration week in 1981.
Once in the Navy he switched from pediatrics to dermatology for very practical reasons—”pediatrics was so busy, I was never at home. I realized I could not go on like that and decided to apply for dermatology.” That led him to the military hospital in Bethesda for training and ultimately to a fellowship in San Antonio to study skin cancer.
The Navy in the 70s had few Indians like him. “We were like ambassadors of India,” he remembers. “Patients would ask, ‘Excuse me sir, where are you from?’ They had no idea where India was.” But that was nothing new to Menon. As a pediatrician in Salinas in California in the 70s before he joined the Navy, he hardly knew any Indians either. “I would have to go to San Francisco or Los Angeles to find Indians,” he recalls. “That’s a full day’s travel. And even there there were hardly any folks who spoke Malayalam like me. All my friends in California were Patels! But that’s just a sacrifice you have to make. You cannot go on living like you are in Kerala.”
“Anyway,” he chuckles, “I was planning to go back to India after three years. That was the plan.”
Now some 26 years later, he is a U.S. citizen and his work has taken him to many fascinating and faraway places like Tonga and the South Pacific island nation of Vanuatu. But life for a Naval officer in the 70s and 80s was nothing like the singing dancing boys of the musical South Pacific. The mission in the Pacific was a humanitarian one, where he was a doctor aboard a 1,000-bed floating hospital, the USNS Mercy. Their mission ranged from helping leprosy patients to removing a 40 pound tumor to repairing X-ray machines. He remembers the trip as fun and it won him a Navy Meritorious Medal.
But the real test came years later when he ended up in the Middle East in the heat of Operation Desert Storm. He was in charge of organizing the dermatology clinic at the Fleet hospital Five, a one-thousand hospital built in tents at Al Jubail in Saudi Arabia. “Dermatology was so busy,” he recalls. “Some of the other doctors could just sit around playing cards.” Though they had trained for 4-5 months to get ready to go into a combat zone, war was still unreal for Menon. They were nervous about chemical warfare and required to carry their gas masks into the toilet. “But we didn’t know what the hell was going on,” he says. “We didn’t have TV. We had no phone connection back home. Then one day a Scud missile fell 500m from us into the Arabian Sea. We were only 50-60 miles from Kuwait. Then we got scared and felt that this was really serious.” By the time they got a phone connection it was February. By March the war was over.
Now Padman Menon’s military career is over as well. Rung out in style with awards, a color guard, a flag passing ceremony and a keynote by the President of Bethesda Medical School, Menon cannot help but look back at the past 25 years with a hint of pride. And he has good reason too—he has his fair share of medals like the Navy Meritorious Service Medal, the Navy Commendation Medal, National defense Service Medal, Philippine Presidential Unit Citation, Kuwait Liberation Medal (Saudi Arabia and Kuwait),Governor’s Volunteerism Award etc. “It is a good career. If you do well and are not afraid of hard work, then a military career is a good one. And then the color of your skin does not matter. I know because I have sat on promotions boards.”
Pointing to all the harassment many South Asians faced after 9/11, he thinks he would not have been thrown off any airplanes. He would have just shown them his defense identity card. “It is not the most lucrative profession. But it’s defending the country. It’s something to be proud of.”
Padman Menon starts on his new civilian life as a dermatologist and micrographic surgeon. But on the day after his retirement ceremony he says, “I was at home. I just sat around and talked and went to bed. I was tired.” It had after all been a long journey around the world for a young man from Kerala.