Dr. Adam M. Robinson Jr. remembers seeing an image of John F. Kennedy's ambulance rolling toward Bethesda Naval Hospital, where doctors performed the autopsy hours after the president was assassinated.
It was a startling scene for Robinson, then an eighth-grade student growing up in Louisville, Ky. For the son of a physician, it was also something of an introduction to the Navy's medical system.
"It was a searing moment," said Robinson, 64. "I remember that I thought it was this great hospital, with great care."
Robinson was appointed director of the VA Maryland Health Care System this month after a nearly 40-year career with the Navy that included a stint as commander of the hospital where Kennedy's body was examined in 1963. He would go on to become the Navy's 36th surgeon general before retiring in 2012.
The Bethesda man is now taking over a 3,000-employee medical system that spent much of last year on defense. Federal audits showed that Maryland's VA medical system, with a $550 million annual budget, was among the slowest in the nation at scheduling first-time visits with primary-care doctors.
That revelation came as the Department of Veterans Affairs was reeling from reports of significant delays at its medical facilities nationwide — a scandal that led to the ouster of Secretary Eric K. Shinseki.
But Robinson, who previously served as chief of staff of the VA Maryland Health Care System, appears to be making progress and is beginning to advance other priorities, such as combating homelessness among veterans.
The system, which serves about 55,000 veterans in Maryland, includes the Baltimore and Perry Point VA medical centers, the Loch Raven VA Community Living and Rehabilitation Center, and six outpatient clinics.
"Helping veterans, for me, was a natural end to a military career," Robinson said. "My first broad goal is to make sure that veterans receive the care that they think is appropriate for their needs."
Robinson took over as acting director in January after the retirement of Dennis H. Smith.
The Department of Veterans Affairs was rocked in April by reports that dozens of veterans had died while waiting for care in Arizona. The revelations prompted congressional hearings, investigations and promises to improve. President Barack Obama nominated Robert A. McDonald to replace Shinseki.
Officials in Maryland also came under fire. An audit found that veterans in the state were waiting an average of 80 days to see a primary-care doctor for an initial visit, the fourth-longest wait in the nation.
Robinson, who was appointed by McDonald, said the agency has responded by hiring about a dozen doctors and slowing the turnover among medical staff. The most recent data from the department, which covers through June, shows that 97 percent of appointments in Maryland are now completed within 30 days.
"We have really substantially eliminated wait times," Robinson said. "We've revamped extensively how we administer our primary care and our emergency care."
Russell W. Myers Jr., adjutant of the American Legion's Department of Maryland, said significant challenges remain but Robinson's approach has impressed veterans organizations in the state.
"He has exhibited a straightforward management style," Myers said. "He has told his staff that 'our job is to say yes.' He wants to give veterans the best opportunity to get care that they can."
Robinson is beginning to engage in other initiatives, including working with the administration of Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake to curb homelessness among veterans.
Robinson is also working with Baltimore District Judge Halee F. Weinstein on a veterans docket to handle misdemeanor cases involving defendants with military service. The effort, set to launch this fall, is intended to identify veterans in the criminal justice system and target them for drug treatment, mental health and other services — which are provided by the VA.
Weinstein said Robinson and the VA "are totally committed to providing justice-involved veterans with the treatment and services they need and deserve."
Robinson earned a degree in political science from Indiana University in 1972, then studied medicine at the school under the military's then-new Health Professions Scholarship Program. He completed a surgical internship at the Southern Illinois University School of Medicine and was commissioned in 1977.
His first assignment was as a general medical officer at Fort Allen, Puerto Rico. He served as a staff surgeon at the U.S. Naval Hospital in Yokosuka, Japan, and as a ship's surgeon on the aircraft carrier USS Midway. He earned a master's degree in business administration from the University of South Florida in 1994.
In 2007, President George W. Bush appointed Robinson surgeon general of the Navy, the senior commissioned officer in the Navy medical corps, responsible for overseeing its medical program and 63,000 personnel.
Robinson said his experience has taught him the importance of collaboration with other government agencies — a top priority for his tenure at the VA.
"The VA Maryland needs to be involved in the community," he said. The agency "cannot be successful as a stand-alone organization."