He was the old guy in airborne training at Fort Benning, Georgia, a U.S. Army veterinarian holding his own with soldiers half his age, preparing to leap from a plane.
JOHN L. POPPE ’86 DVM had parachuted recreationally back in his Pullman days but was taking command of a special airborne veterinary unit in 2001 and wanted to be jump ready.
“I was determined to do it,” recalls Poppe, now a brigadier general and chief of the U.S. Army’s multifaceted Veterinary Corps.
He was a 42-year-old lieutenant colonel back in jump school and his commitment to readiness was no academic exercise. Two years later, his team of airborne veterinarians was deployed as part of Operation Iraqi Freedom.
“A lot of what we do is keep the military dogs healthy,” explains Poppe. “But that’s just part of it. There’s food safety, working with livestock and procurement, and disease detection.”
Poppe’s knack for embracing challenges has served him well for nearly three decades as he climbed the military ranks, including a demanding year-and-a-half stint at the Pentagon. In addition to the Middle East and multiple postings throughout the United States, Poppe has been sent to Korea, Turkey, and the Caribbean island nation of Grenada.
His national leadership and global accomplishments also has earned him the 2015 Regents’ Distinguished Alumnus Award, the highest alumni honor bestowed by Washington State University.
Poppe, who also served as the army’s assistant surgeon general and is the first veterinarian to become the U.S. Army Medical Command’s deputy chief of staff for public health, was honored last October during a reception on the Pullman campus.
Now nearing retirement, he still has a youthful demeanor, a quick wit, and the tempered resolve of a general with Pentagon experience and command of a crucial piece of the Defense Department’s infrastructure.
Raised on a dairy farm near Mount Vernon, Poppe earned a bachelor’s degree in animal sciences in 1981 from WSU before graduating cum laude from the College of Veterinary Medicine.
He worked in a small-animal practice in Seattle before joining the army in 1987 for what he figured would be a quick term. “I thought I’d do this for three years and then get my real job,” Poppe says with a laugh.
Instead, he discovered the reach of the Army Veterinary Corps.
In addition to the health of all military animals, the Veterinary Corps is responsible for overall food safety, disease detection, and some Defense Department research. In fact, it serves as one of the world’s largest food protection programs, overseeing about 2,000 approved procurement sources in more than 80 countries, and is widely credited with the U.S. military’s low rate of food-borne illnesses.
His wife, Denise Richey Poppe ’86, pushed him to stick with it as the end of his first three-year tour drew near. Despite the 18 relocations over a 28-year career, both are glad he did.
Veterinarians, after all, are considered key to the U.S. military’s overall health and preparedness.
The Veterinary Corps was formed because of the nineteenth-century reliance on livestock for transportation. But their academic training in microbiology, epidemiology, and pathology gave the military a cadre of health science professionals whose roles could be adapted to evolving needs, including research into vaccines, antitoxins, and antidotes.
Today, the army is the largest provider of veterinary science scholarships nationwide and is the single-largest employer of WSU veterinary medicine graduates.
Although he now makes his home in San Antonio, Texas, Poppe hasn’t forgotten his Pacific Northwest roots. He has returned to Pullman at least once a year over the past decade as a guest speaker on international veterinary science.
As he looks back over nearly three decades spent in the army, Poppe recalls fondly the varied demands of overseas deployments, in particular.
“There were times when I wished I’d been more attentive in school when we were learning about things like chickens,” he says with a matter-of-fact chuckle. “I’d grown up on a dairy farm and in school thought that’s what I’d be doing.”
It reminds him of what he tells other aspiring veterinarians who seek his advice.
“Make sure you don’t get too focused,” Poppe says. “Do a lot of things because you don’t know where life is going to take you.”