Nowhere are nurses more valued and needed than in war zones. From Dorothea Dix to Clara Barton to Florence Nightingale, these women bravely entered the most intense arenas of tragedy and human suffering armed with courage, compassion, and medical skill sets that resulted in patients and witnesses describing them as “ministering angels.” Their noble souls fought for an end to unhygienic conditions that killed more soldiers by disease than combat. They demanded dignity for their patients, and they struggled to ease the suffering of those affected by the jaws of war. Their legacy continues today. Building on the foundation of hundreds of years of medical advancement, nurses are contributing to saving more lives on and around the battlefield than ever recorded in history. They are masters of trauma treatment and preventative medicine.
Two of them are Wisconsin's own Major Rebecca Giese and Major Mary Jo Literski.
Major Rebecca Giese is a Registered Nurse from Baraboo, Wisconsin, who performs case management full time for the Wisconsin Army National Guard. She is currently serving on active duty to assist in the largest deployment of Wisconsin National Guard soldiers since World War II. Over 3200 soldiers from Wisconsin have been called upon to serve in Iraq.
“The soldiers are engaged in pre-mobilization training during March and April 2009 and will serve in Iraq from May 2009 until spring of 2010," Giese says. "It's my job to ensure that soldiers are medically ready and able to perform their difficult job. This includes ensuring that soldiers meet a variety of requirements including pre-deployment immunizations, height and weight standards, dental health, and vision and hearing testing.”
Giese speaks about her decision to join the military. “My grandfather served during World War Two. I've always been patriotic and very proud of my grandfather. I joined the Army when I was seventeen years old—my mother had to sign my enlistment papers for me because I wasn't eighteen. Numerous uncles have also served. I just knew it was something I needed to do. I enjoy the military and intend to serve as long as I am able.”
A veteran of Desert Storm where she served in a field hospital, Giese began her career with U.S. Army Combat Medic training, followed by an LPN degree from Madison Area Technical College. Soon after, she achieved her Associates Degree in Nursing from MATC, followed by a BSN from Viterbo in La Crosse. Her experience includes medical/surgical nursing, labor/delivery/postpartum nursing, as well as working for a local Health Department.
She states of her current position: “I enjoy all types of nursing, but at this point in my life, I really enjoy working with injured soldiers. It's my part of assisting in the war effort. One of the most difficult parts of my job is knowing that some of the soldiers I encounter daily have been deployed as many as three times. It's also hard to watch soldiers who are stopped from deploying due to medical issues feel let down when they can't serve with their guys. Counteracting these experiences are the great pride and satisfaction I feel in seeing soldiers leave their jobs and families and not complain or look back in the face of doing their duty.” Freedom is not free, as they say, and the bonds of combat veterans run deep.
Major Mary Jo Literski is an Orthopedic Certified Registered Nurse who lives in Wausau, Wisconsin. She completed her Associates Degree in Nursing from Northcentral Technical School then achieved her Bachelors of Science in Nursing from the University of Phoenix. She is a member of the U.S. Army Reserve and was deployed with Milwaukee's 452d Combat Support Hospital to Bagram, Afghanistan in 2003. Prior to that, she worked on an orthopedic/neurological unit in Wausau.
She states, “During my tour in Afghanistan, we provided the highest level of care available in the country. When you are overseas, you still practice according to ANA guidelines. We still want to accomplish the same goals but how you accomplish your job, the equipment you use, and the ingenuity used changes with every situation.”
Literski's patients were not limited to U.S. soldiers. Local civilians were admitted for life, limb, or eyesight threatening injuries if beds were available. “I spent most of my time in an Intermediate Care Ward and assisted in the Emergency Department for trauma patients. We also performed humanitarian missions to local villages.”
“The main threats we faced were rockets, insurgents, and landmines, but some of the most frightening things were the camel spiders—I hate spiders, especially big ones--and mice that shared our sleeping areas and sneaked into the hospital, not to mention the lice infestations of the local patients.”In a country torn by decades of warfare, millions of landmines remain. Children often fall victim to these unseen dangers. “I was amazed by the resilience of the children,” Literski says. “We treated many with blast injuries from landmines. They lived in primitive conditions and rarely had any present family members.”
Recollecting a ten year old patient, Literski says, "One little girl lost both legs to a landmine, suffered many soft tissue injuries to her arms, shrapnel to her torso, and had a colostomy. I accompanied her to her home village after teaching her wound care of stumps, arms, and colostomy care—keep in mind that she was only about ten years old. She showed up six months later happy and healthy in the wheelchair that we provided since she was a bilateral amputee. Her colostomy take down was successful, and it was rewarding to see that part of her return to normal function. At the time, she showed me a photograph of the two of us that had been taken soon after her injury. She had sewn it into a pocket of her garb. Although we only spoke a few common words, we shared a deep bond.”
Literski gives the following advice to those considering military nursing: “You need to be flexible, have a good support system, and know what relaxes you, whether that means reading, watching DVD's, prayer, writing, or using your computer. You also need to stay in contact with your family, but you won't be able to share everything with them. Some things are only meant to be discussed with those working with you. You have to remember that things will not be done just like at home. The injuries are different, and the language may be different. The supplies are limited and in a mass casualty situation, the most severely injured may get the least care so as to save the most lives—almost the complete opposite as in the civilian world. Above all of these stresses is the biggest reward, the appreciation. Whether American soldier, a coalition soldier, or a local civilian, the biggest difference between military and civilian nursing is that the people you serve overseas are much more appreciative of all your efforts and hard work.”
According to the Population Reference Bureau (Vol. 59, No. 4, Dec. 2004) only 1% of the overall population of the United States have served in the armed forces. This noble one percent selflessly serve their country and their fellow human beings, putting their own comfort aside to help others. Wisconsin nurses are numbered among these brave few. They continue to forge both a legacy of freedom and of healing.
published in Wisconsin Nurses Magazine 7/2009