Citation for the Award of the Gold Medal for Lifetime Achievement in the Practice of Psychology by the American Psychological Foundation/American Psychological Association
“Dr. Gilbert O. Sanders has served as the point person for developing integrated programs of psychology and medicine in Vietnam, Alaska, California, and Germany. His leadership in psychotherapy and psychopharmacology earned him the rank of Captain, the highest authorized grade for commissioned officers serving as psychologists in the U.S. Public Health Service. His contributions in the U.S. Public Health Service, Army and Air Force, as well as, civil service and DoD Contractor for a period of 51 years has improved the fitness for duty of military personnel, reduced costs, and improved health care for the military and their families. His lifetime of achievement in the practice of psychology has served as a model for health care services for the U.S. civilian population.”
Biography by Dr. Jack Wiggins, Former President of the American Psychological Association
Captain (Dr.) Gilbert O. Sanders’s career reads like the return of a native Oklahoma farm boy who comes home as an esteemed, highly decorated uniformed service member and psychological practitioner. He leaves behind a trail of enlightened people living improved lifestyles because of his efforts.
Gil was born in 1945 as the only child of Richard A. Sanders Jr. and Evelyn Barker Sanders. Gil’s father was a World War II veteran who farmed and worked in the local post office, and his mother was a registered nurse. They were a religious family, and Gil was preparing to go into the ministry when he went to college. He attended Murray State College prior to his graduation from Oklahoma State University with a bachelor’s degree in 1967 and commissioned as a second lieutenant following completion of Air Force ROTC training. He was assigned to the Public Affairs office of Maxwell Air Force Base and served as the Editor of the ‘Maxwell-Gunter Post Dispatch’, and later as a Liaison Officer for the establishment of the Vietnamese version of the US Air Force’s Squadron Officer School in Nha Trang, Republic of Vietnam. During this time he began his master’s degree training in educational psychology at nearby Troy State University as a step toward his planned entry into the ministry. During his tenure with the US Air Force he met his first wife, the niece of Audie Murphy, the most decorated soldier and Medal of Honor winner from World War II. Murphy persuaded Sanders to transfer to the US Army. Upon completion of Army field artillery training, Sanders was assigned to the 173rd Airborne Brigade in Vietnam.
After three month in Vietnam John Paul Vann, senior advisor for the Second Corps, read in Sanders’s personnel file and seeing that he had a master’s degree in psychology and assigned him to develop the first treatment center for substance abuse in a combat zone of Vietnam. The military urgently needed a treatment facility for the then rampant drug abuse in order to increase the effectiveness of the troops. Sanders’s success in developing the Pleiku Drug Abuse Rehabilitation Center was the final reason Sanders decided to become a psychologist. It was also the start of the military’s choosing to imbed psychologists in combat units.
Sanders obtained his doctoral degree in education and counseling psychology from The University of Tulsa in 1974. He taught psychology, had a private practice while remaining in the Army Reserves, and worked as a Department of the Army civilian as a senior research psychologist working on both the Pershing and Patriot missile systems. In 1981, he was called back to active duty, and in 1989 he transferred to the U.S. Public Health Service and was assigned to the federal prison in El Reno, Oklahoma, as director of Psychology Intern Training and the Substance Abuse Rehabilitation Program. While working in El Reno, he obtained his initial training in psychotropic medications as a medical psychologist. In 1992, Sanders was promoted to director of the Comprehensive Drug Abuse Program at the federal prison in Leavenworth, Kansas. He created the first comprehensive drug treatment program at a maximum-security federal correctional institution.
In 1995, Sanders was assigned to the Indian Health Service by the U.S. Public Health Service (USPHS) in Sitka, Alaska, as director of the Chemical Dependency Unit. He was adopted as a member of the Tlingit tribe of Alaska and cited by the USPH for making significant improves the substance abuse program and improving care by developing an integrated care model for the provision of mental health services, as well as providing services for Native Alaskans where none had existed before.
One year later, Sanders was promoted to the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage as a clinical psychologist providing a full range of therapeutic services to Native Alaskans. At the Medical Center, he made psychotropic medication recommendations to the hospital staff and integrated psychological service into multiple hospital service areas. .
Sanders was elected president of the Alaska Psychological Association in 1999 and introduced a prescription authority bill in the Alaskan legislature that would have enabled appropriately trained psychologist to prescribe psychotropic medications. When the regional director of the USPHS Mental Health Services (a psychiatrist and who was strongly opposed to having psychologists’ prescribe) learned of this, he had Captain Sanders reassigned to the Division of Immigration Health Service (DIHS) in El Centro, California, as its first USPHS Commissioned Corps psychologist.
Sanders created another breakthrough for psychology by establishing a Behavioral Medicine and Medication Management Clinic in El Centro. When he arrived there in 1999, an average of 78 detainees per day were on psychotropic medications. By 2001, using psychological interventions, Sanders reduced the daily average number of detainees on psychotropic medications to 13. He reduced the number of detainees sent for long-term care from 1.5 per month in 1999 to 1.5 per year, for an annual savings of over $500,000.
Sanders was promoted to performance improvement coordinator at El Centro, and in 2001 he served as vice-chairman of the Surgeon General of the United States, Scientists’ Professional Advisory Committee. That same year he became the Western Region behavioral consultant to the Immigration and Naturalization Service. When the psychologist position was abolished at El Centro in July 2002 due to budgetary constraints and reorganization, Sanders retired from the USPHS.
He then established a private practice of psychology in Oklahoma City and completed the postdoctoral program in psychopharmacology at Fairleigh Dickinson University. However, he wasn’t away from federal service for long as he was called in early 2003 to serve as a U.S. Army civil servant serving as a consulting clinical psychologist to treat returning veterans from Iraq with posttraumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries in Katterbach/Ansbach, Germany. Using the model he developed at El Centro, Sanders created a protocol for psychologists to recommend psychotropic medications to primary care physicians as an integral part of the mental health team.
Sanders was reassigned to Alaska in 2006 as director of Behavioral Medical Services at the Community Mental Health Clinic at Fort Richardson; he was charged with the expansion of services for substance abuse problems, which were plaguing Alaska. Sanders served as a “trouble- shooter” for US Senator Lisa Murkowski, who used his suggestions to propose legislation for the improvement of National Guard members’ access to federal psychological services.
Sanders’s reputation as a game changer allowed him to become supervisory psychologist/director of the Organizational Health Consulting Office at Robins Air Force Base, Georgia, which had the highest rate of attempted suicides among U.S. Air Force bases when Sanders arrived in 2008. Within one year he had cut the attempted suicide rate by more than 50 percent.
Next, Sanders became senior operational psychologist/behavioral sciences program manager of the Air Force Office of Special Investigations (OSI). He also served as program manager for the OSI Decompression Reintegration Center in Germany, which became the model for the current Air Force Decompression and Reintegration Program. When he retired two years later due to the health problems of his dear wife Lidia, Sanders was awarded the Air Force Outstanding Civilian Career Service Medal the equivalent of the Legion of Merit for active duty service members.
In October 2012, the Department of Defense (DoD) took the U.S. Air Force Behavioral Health Optimization Program (BHOP) and renamed it the Integrated Behavioral Health Consultant Program and hired qualified contract civilian psychologists as embedded consultants in primary care physician clinics and hospitals (concept which he was instrumental in developing years earlier). The DoD-wide program exemplifies the comprehensive behavioral health care and use of psychotropic medications that Sanders championed. Sanders was selected to be the primary mental health consultant with the Family Medicine Department at Tinker Field Air Force Base near Oklahoma City. The 2013-14 annual inspection report of the Tinker Air Force Base Medical Clinic cited Sanders for his exceptional coordination of information regarding High Mental Health Interest (suicidal risk) Personnel. This same year he was awarded the American Psychological Foundation’s highest award, the Gold Medal for lifetime achievement in the practice of Psychology.
In August 2015 Gil ended his over 50 years of service to the uniformed services both as a uniformed service member, civil servant and contractor and began a part-time psychological and consulting practice. In 2017 he was selected as the President of the Oklahoma Psychological Association. Thus, Gilbert O. Sanders continues to demonstrate his leadership as a practicing civilian psychologist with a record of military achievements that have benefited the public.