Military nurses develop diverse skills, capabilities
Karyn Miller in 1976 at the beginning of a Navy nursing career that would take her from the Carolinas to Iceland and Guam. (Courtesy photo)
Air Force Col. Erwin Gines was a young officer and emergency department nurse at what’s now the Wilford Hall Ambulatory Surgical Center in San Antonio when he volunteered to serve with a special operations critical care evacuation team. He deployed with the team serving Joint Task Force Viking during the initial invasion of Iraq in 2003. It was the only medical unit, and Gines was the only emergency critical care nurse.
Patient care, Gines quickly found out, was not his only duty.
“We converted bare-bones rooms in old Iraqi administrative buildings into makeshift operating rooms, surgical suites, and critical care areas,” said Gines, now the 60th Inpatient Squadron commander at David Grant USAF Medical Center at Travis Air Force Base, California. “We did whatever we were asked to do.”
Nurses became a permanent part of the armed forces more than 100 years ago, and, like Gines, have shown initiative, flexibility, and commitment in both traditional and atypical roles. Read more about the history of military nursing part 1 and part 2.
Retired Army Col. Donna Wright was a junior officer and critical care nurse at Irwin Community Hospital in Fort Riley, Kansas, in 1971 when she was sent on a one-year tour of duty at 3rd Field Hospital in Saigon. The fixed facility treated wounded, injured, and ill service members brought from other locations in Vietnam.
For America, the Vietnam War was winding down, and Wright didn’t go out on patient transport calls. Still, she had challenges in her assignment in the critical care/post op recovery unit. She took care of a steady stream of patients, sometimes having to scramble to improvise because of shortages in basic medical supplies.
As Wright’s tour was ending, the hospital chaplain gave her an unusual assignment: Take a baby home with her to San Francisco, where the little girl’s adoptive parents were waiting. The baby sat on Wright’s lap during the long flight back to the United States.
Post-Vietnam, Wright’s assignments included directing critical-care training programs, first at Fitzsimons Army Medical Center in Aurora, Colorado, and then at what’s now the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland. She said she found it rewarding to help the next generation of nurses develop skills and confidence.
“I was delighted to see how opportunities for nurses expanded during my career,” she said.
Retired Navy Lt. Cmdr. Karyn Miller had a nursing diploma and three years of work experience in a civilian hospital in her native Rhode Island when she joined the Navy in 1976. She earned a bachelor’s degree and also a master’s degree in human resources while she was in uniform.
After patient-care assignments in Iceland, North Carolina, and South Carolina, among other places, Miller was sent to Naval Base Guam. There, she implemented the first medical informatics system for the main base hospital and two large clinics. The system collected, analyzed, and presented data digitally and was the foundation for electronic health records.
“It was one of my biggest accomplishments,” Miller said, “and the hardest.”
Retired Navy Rear Adm. Betsy Morris served for more than 30 years in active duty and reserve assignments. “There were so many opportunities for professional growth and challenging assignments,” she said. Her duties included serving as a medical mobilization coordinator during Operation Desert Shield and Desert Storm in the early 1990s.
“Our job was to identify who among the 10,000-plus reserve medical personnel would help meet the mobilization requirements,” said Morris, a pediatric nurse practitioner in Virginia.
Morris, who graduated from the University of Delaware, decided to become a Navy nurse after recruiters came to campus her junior year.
Air Force 1st Lt. Kelly Dering, a medical surgical nurse at Travis, hasn’t been in uniform long enough to experience a nontraditional nurse assignment. But like those who have served before her, she’ll gladly answer the call of duty.
“I’ll be happy anywhere,” she said. “Bloom where you’re planted – that’s my mentality.”