Alumni Q&A / Colonel Chris Castle DDes ’99, Defense Health Agency
In April, Colonel Chris Castle DDes ’99 returned to the GSD for the 30th Anniversary of the Doctor of Design (DDes) program. During the event, he participated in the panel “Government: Strategies, Tactics, and Design,” where he spoke about his work overseeing the acquisition and delivery of health care services for the U.S. military. The event brought together Castle and his fellow DDes graduates to celebrate the accomplishments of the alumni community in advancing multi-scalar and trans-disciplinary design knowledge while addressing crucial societal issues in our increasingly complex and challenging world.
For nearly three decades, Castle has planned and led operations of military healthcare environments that sustain and care for members of the U.S. Armed Forces on and off the battlefield. He was awarded the Bronze Star Medal for meritorious service in a combat zone and currently serves as Deputy Director of the TRICARE Regional Offices for the Defense Health Agency.
In this Q&A, Castle reflects on his mission to protect the health of the troops and the inspiring experience of connecting with the global DDes alumni community as part of the 30th Anniversary event.
1. Tell us about your background.
I was born in Lafayette, Indiana as my father was completing a Ph.D. in physical chemistry at Purdue University and was raised at Purdue until age 7. The remainder of my formative years was spent in Pittsburgh, PA.
2. What previous degrees do you have?
A Bachelor of Science degree in Architecture and a Master of Science degree in Architecture, from the Taubman College of Architecture and Urban Planning at the University of Michigan, and a Master of Strategic Studies from the U.S. Army War College.
3. You have nearly 30 years of service in the US military in planning, construction, operations, and health care. How did you begin your career in the military?
I started in Heidelberg, Germany as a regional planner for military medical facilities traveling to Northern Germany, Belgium, the Netherlands, Luxembourg, and the U.K. to assess medical facility needs at US military posts and programming construction facilities repair, renovation, and construction projects—a rough assignment. It afforded me the opportunity to travel extensively in Europe and experience its architectural wonders first hand—Amsterdam, Rotterdam, Bruges, Brussels, Heidelberg, Köln, Berlin, Munich, Wurzburg, Dresden, Prague, Budapest, Vienna, Saltsburg, Strasburg, Venice, Sienna, Vicenza, Florence, Rome, Barcelona, and many towns and hamlets between, with a sketchbook in hand. Imagine.
4. Why did you choose to pursue a doctoral degree in design at the GSD? What makes the DDes program special?
Easy… the GSD’s faculty, students, and vibe were head and shoulders above every other doctoral program I visited (and I visited them all).
5. Who or what inspires you and your work?
The breathtaking courage and commitment of the young men and women who serve our nation in uniform. It’s indescribable. They deserve the best medical care we can give them and healthcare environments that are equal to their service.
6. What is the most significant thing you learned while at the GSD?
That we have no limitations.
7. Daniel Schodek (Former Director of the Master in Design Studies Program) and Spiro Pollalis (Professor of Design, Technology, and Management) were your advisors when you were at the GSD. Did they offer any advice or guidance that has made a lasting impression since your time as a student?
I don’t recall a particular quotable bit of advice, but rather a continuous challenge of my thinking and intellectual rigor, accompanied by equal parts of enthusiasm, encouragement, and freedom to explore. I am greatly indebted to both of them.
8. What is your favorite memory of the GSD?
My favorite memory was a general feeling of becoming part of the Harvard community and taking on the challenge written on the gate to “Enter To Grow in Wisdom” and “Depart To Serve better Thy Country and Mankind.” There was another plaque that I passed daily on the way to and from the T, on the right wall of the gate facing the Science Center (from Emmerson). I used to know it by heart but confess I Googled it to be reminded… “I went to the College Jubilee on the 8th instant. A noble and well-thought of anniversary. The pathos of the occasion was extreme and not much noted by the speakers. Cambridge at any time is full of ghosts. But on that day, the anointed eye saw the crowd of spirits that mingled with the procession in the vacant spaces, year by year, as the classes proceeded, and then the far longer train of ghosts that followed the Company, of the men that wore before us the College honors and the laurels of the state–the long winding train reaching back into eternity.”
I felt those ghosts ever present. One hopes to join the procession and endeavor to be worthy of it.
9. In April, you spoke at the DDes 30th Anniversary (video below starting at 23:09) to about a quarter of the 190 DDes alumni who returned to campus for this very memorable milestone for the program. What is your impression of the range and quality of work by your fellow DDes alumni?
Stunning. Fascinating. Challenging. Global. Inspiring. Humbling. I was grateful to be a part of it.
10. You deployed in support of Operation Enduring Freedom as a medical advisor in Kabul, Afghanistan. What challenges did you encounter in planning health care operations for 130,000 collation forces?
The challenges were many that you might imagine in a combat environment. It is a year-long separation from civilization and family that is physically and mentally taxing in a way that one only finds in combat. In my case, it was not as dangerous as can be imagined. We were on a protected military base, but there were periodic rocket attacks and a couple of tragic “insider attacks” in which people were killed or injured. Movement off-base was dangerous with the ever-present prospect of roadside bombs or direct attacks on the convoy, but it was nothing like being an infantryman on patrol. It was physically demanding. Again, nothing compared to infantry life, but the facilities were austere, the food dreadful, the showers cold, the sleeping accommodations noisy, there was a higher prevalence of foodborne and other strange illnesses, and the work was non-stop 24/7. One was always armed and weighed down with body armor. There were 43 nations in the coalition including the Afghans, so language was often a barrier. The planning and execution were as complex and urgent as anything I have ever been involved in—a life and death competition with a real enemy. Nevertheless, the coalition was professional grade military, the camaraderie was everything you’ve heard, and we carried our part of the mission protecting the health of the troops and saving life and limb.
11. You designed the military health design system from bottom to top, including overseeing planning, implementation, and management. Tell us about this undertaking. How did you approach creating a patient-centered environment that empowers troops and families?
Deep question. The short answer is that one must be devoted to understanding the patient as a whole person and what helps him/her to be well, stay well, survive, and develop resilience. One must be devoted to understanding science—the totality of medical science, managerial science, and building science. And one must be devoted to the idea that there can be something in our architecture that is above all of that, giving expression, meaning, and nourishment to all who inhabit it.
12. You mentioned during your DDes remarks that you will be retiring this summer and moving onto your next design problem. About what design problems are you passionate?
My passion is unchanged. I care for the noble men and women who choose to serve. I am likely to work with the Veterans Administration for a while. After that, I am not sure what will speak to me, but to borrow a phrase, I will continue to “seek to serve better my country and mankind.”
13. Have there been any significant life experiences that influence your work?
Yes—but it isn’t any one thing. It’s the accumulation of great and small deeds that I have witnessed that demonstrate how ordinary people can become extraordinary together when they give themselves to a higher cause.
14. Tell us about your work/life balance? What occupies you when you are not working?
The balance is often hard to see. It has been “pedal to the metal” for 30 years, but not without purpose. I have always risen before and gone to bed after my family, but I have tried to be home in time for dinner, soccer games, recitals, and everything else a father should. When I have failed to do so, I have asked my children to understand that nothing worth doing comes without sacrifice. I think they understand and take some pride in their contribution and in providing a model for their own pursuits.
15. What advice do you have for GSD students and/or alumni?
It cannot be “just design” that stirs you. Design is not an end in itself. There must be something above design that inspires you. Find out what that is for you.
16. Looking back, what experiences at the GSD were the most helpful in shaping your career (these can be seen broadly as courses, student activities, lectures, conferences, etc.)?
It’s “all of the above.” It was a combination of the faculty, fellow students, friends, Cambridge, the dot-com boom, my thesis, where I was in my life, family, and career. It came together in a way that changed my trajectory. I returned to the Army (30 hours of connecting flights to my next assignment in Korea) a changed man with a different perspective that has made all the difference.
17. What would surprise us about you?
My favorite album of all time is the Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique. I can recite it front to back. Maybe that isn’t surprising?