Enjoying the Journey: Peter F. Roberts OPC ’84

Riding to the set, actress Melina Kanakaredes was interested to meet the new actor who would be appearing on the hit TV show, Hawaii Five-0.

“So I hear you’re the guy who’s going to be playing the doctor today,” she remarked.

“I am,” answered Peter Roberts OPC ’84.

“I heard that you’re a real doctor,” Kanakaredes added. Roberts acknowledged that he is—a cardiovascular and thoracic surgeon, in fact.

U.S. Navy Capt. Peter Roberts has made a practice of taking selfies
with children he has met and cared for during his travels as a Navy doctor.

“Which do you prefer, being a doctor or acting?”

“I’ll tell you after today; I’ve never acted before,” Roberts replied.

“But you’ve done some commercials,” Kanakaredes continued, confused.

No, came the answer.

“Community playhouse?” No.

“High school drama club?” Not even that.

“You could feel her disappointment,” Roberts said, still relishing the story. “She must have thought, ‘What the heck are you doing here?’”

The part was hardly a stretch for Roberts. He is a Navy doctor. At the time, in 2015, he was deputy commander of Tripler Army Medical Center in Oahu, and Hawaii Five-0, which is largely filmed on location, wanted to shoot some scenes there. Someone on the production team asked Roberts if he would like to be an extra, and he agreed.

The story, however, doesn’t end there. A few weeks later, the show was back for more filming, and the casting director asked Roberts if he wanted to audition for a speaking part. He went to the studio for a screen test, was given a few lines as Dr. Isaac Cornett, and thought, “Wow, that was pretty cool. That’ll never  happen again.” But it did. The next season, in 2016, the producers wanted Roberts to come back as Dr. Cornett in the season finale.

On the set, the director once even sought Roberts’s medical opinion, asking if a character with a specific illness would go into convulsions. Possibly, Roberts suggested, but they would not be so dramatic in real life.

“Peter, this isn’t reality,” the director informed him. “This is Hawaii Five-0 reality.”

Roberts’s brief turn as a TV actor only obscured the more important work he is doing, serving his country and the cause of humanity. Now based in San Diego as the Third Fleet surgeon, covering the western United States and the central Pacific, Roberts oversees the delivery of medical care to forces in those areas and helps ensure that they are prepared to respond to a natural disaster, such as an earthquake or tsunami.

From 2016 to 2018, he served as commanding officer of one of the Navy’s two hospital ships, USNS Mercy, which provides medical care and training to nations across the

Pacific and Southeast Asia. The Mercy is huge, with a thousand patient beds, 12 operating rooms, a full intensive care unit, a morgue and more than 800 personnel.

Roberts spent nearly a full year at sea, traveling more than 36,000 miles and spending time in 10 Pacific nations. He was responsible for the medical teams in two Pacific Partnerships, an annual joint training exercise the Navy conducts with countries in the region. The exercise is designed to build stronger partnerships, build resilience in the medical infrastructure of participating nations, and enhance collective readiness in the event of a major disaster.

One of the Mercy’s most important stops was in Vietnam. Despite the historic animosity between the U.S. and Vietnam, their shared humanitarian work brought them together. “Doctors speak the same language,” Roberts observed, “so when you’re in another country working on patient care, the boundaries and the history with the country kind of fade away.”

In fact, Roberts describes the Mercy, which is painted white with huge red crosses on the side, as a symbol of hope.

“People told me over and over again that when they saw that ship come over the horizon and sail into their harbor, they just felt that their lives were about to change for the good.”

The USNS Mercy, one of the Navy’s two hospital ships, contains a thousand patient beds, 12 operating rooms and, when fully operational, 800 personnel.

At Penn Charter, Roberts excelled equally in Alice Davis’s chemistry class and Randy Granger’s art classes. He considered becoming a graphic designer but attended Middlebury College because his parents wanted him to get a liberal arts education. He earned a degree in physics and decided to go into medicine; he graduated from Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple, where he met his wife, Lisa, who now works for the Navy as a civilian nurse.

Roberts then practiced and taught at the University of California Davis School of Medicine, and was serving in the Navy Reserves when 9/11 occurred. As for so many, that was a defining event; both he and his wife had friends who died in the World Trade Center, including Peter Ortale OPC ’83. Roberts decided to go on active duty in the Navy in 2003.

After serving at the medical center in Portsmouth, Va., where he established a cardiothoracic surgery program, Roberts deployed to Iraq, serving as director of surgical services at Al Taqaddum Air Base and as a thoracic surgeon at Balad Air Force Theater Hospital. From 2009 to 2011, he was the first executive officer at the NATO Role 3 Multinational Medical Unit in Kandahar, Afghanistan, then returned to the United States as head of medical plans and operations at the Fleet Forces command in Virginia.

After more than a decade of whirlwind travel and service, Roberts is enjoying a more stationary life in San Diego. His current job certainly has its perks. One is his office, high on the cliffs of Point Loma, overlooking the Pacific. “I think I probably have the best office in the Navy,” Roberts said. “When it’s whale season, I can see whales outside my window.”

There is one other thing. Because of all his television work, Roberts was required to join the Screen Actors Guild and now holds a coveted SAG card. Many of his friends and former classmates, he noted, have worked as actors for years without getting one. “Life is a lot of hard work and a little bit about being in the right place at the right time,” Roberts said. “I had an incredible foundation of learning at Penn Charter and spent the next 15 years learning in rigorous formal education programs. I am very thankful for all the opportunities I’ve had here and around the world. I’ve learned to stay flexible and enjoy the journey.”