1. LIBRARY CATALOG
  2. DATABASES
  3. JOURNAL A-Z List
  4. SUBJECT GUIDES
  5. LIBRARY SERVICES

The Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Project

Oral history interview with Sandra Higgins, 2010

Search the Collection


AND   OR   EXACT PHRASE

Object ID: wv0489.5.001

Description: Sandra White Higgins tells of her service as an Air Force nurse officer and National Guard nurse officer, and her life in relation to her service.

Summary: Higgins primarily documents her military career, beginning in 1977, spanning the Cold War and Operation Desert Storm, ending in 2001, just prior to 9/11. She details many of her experiences, including her time stationed in England and her service in Kuwait during Operation Desert Storm.

Creator: Sandra J. White Higgins

Biographical Info: Sandra J. White Higgins (b. 1954) served in the United States Air Force Nurse Corps from 1977-1984 and the Air National Guard from 1988-2001. She retired with the rank of Colonel.

Collection: Sandra J. Higgins Papers

Rights: It is responsibility of the user to follow the copyright law of the United States (Title 17, U.S. Code). Materials are not to be reproduced in published works without written consent, and any use should credit Jackson Library, The University of North Carolina at Greensboro.

Full Text:

Therese Strohmer:

Today is May 18. I’m in Asheboro, North Carolina—I almost said Oregon. [laughs] And I’m here with Sandy Higgins. We’re here for an oral history interview for the Betty H. Carter Women Veterans Historical Collection. Sandy, how would you like your name to read on your collection?

Sandra Higgins:

As Sandra White Higgins.

TS:

Okay. [recording error] Well, we lost power there for a second, but we’re back. So Sandy, you were telling me about your dad in the—

SH:

Yes, my dad was in the navy at the beginning of World War II and had stayed in for the period of time he had to during the war. In fact, my dad and all of his brothers were in various branches of the military during the war. And I actually have a picture in there: the newspaper article of my grandfather and all of his sons. And my mother used to say, “I do not know how your grandmother stood it with having all of them in war areas during World War II.”

TS:

Right.

SH:

But for some reason, I would sit around when I was a kid growing up and watch all the old war movies with my dad, and I just—There was just something romantic and, I guess, exciting about seeing war movies. And I just remember doing that with him and I thought, “You know, going into the military would be a great way to actually get out and see the country. I would always have a job. I would always have a place to stay. I wouldn’t have to worry about that.” Because traveling—I just—I wanted to travel. We didn’t really travel that much when I was a kid growing up, and I just thought there was a big old world out there and I’d really like to see it. And that was my primary reason for even beginning to think about going into the military. I had no idea of making a career out of it or staying in all that long; I just wanted to go do some traveling and see the world and decide where I really wanted to be.

And so I started out in Roanoke [Virginia]. At that time I was working at a community hospital on their mental health unit, and I had gone to see the recruiter and talked to the recruiter. And the poor guy, he recruited mostly airmen and enlisted people, wasn’t really set up to recruit a nurse, really had no idea what he was doing or what I had to do, so it was a learning experience for both of us. So I talked to the air force recruiter, and I talked to the navy recruiter and discovered that their basic training for officers was six weeks in Rhode Island.

And I thought “I don’t really want to go to Rhode Island. It’s north, it’s cold, it’s all crowded, and there’s no country at all. I don’t really think I want to go to Rhode Island. And six weeks, that’s a long time to just be in class and learn how to be an officer.” So the air force was a little more enticing. Their program was in Texas and it was two weeks. [laughter] And I thought, “Then I can actually get in and start working and do my job and that’ll be really a neat thing to do.” So that’s how I figured out which branch of the military I was going to be in.

TS:

So it had to do with where you were going to do your officer training?

SH:

Yeah.

TS:

That’s interesting.

SH:

It really did. It really did. And then I started thinking, “Well, let’s see. The navy, they’re probably going to stick me out on a ship somewhere,” not knowing that they probably would never have done that. They might now, but back then they didn’t put women out on the ships for long periods of time.

TS:

Right. And we’re talking ’77. Is—

SH:

Yeah.

TS:

Right. Okay.

SH:

And I thought, “I don’t swim very well, so that’s probably not a good idea.” [laughter] So I ended up in the air force, and I’ll never forget going home and the first time I told my mother, “Guess where I went today? I went and talked to the air force recruiter.”

And she’s like “Oh, no.”

Because I think her envisioning for me—what her vision for me was that I was going to eventually come back home, get married, settle down in the same town, and it wasn’t what I saw myself doing. And I know she was real disappointed about that to begin with, but I think as time went on, you know, she realized that this is what I was doing to make myself happy and where my career was just leading me.

TS:

How was your father?

SH:

He really didn’t say too much. He didn’t seem to be one way or the other. I think he was a little excited about it. I did get them to come visit me one time when we were in Texas. When I was in Texas they did come down for a visit and got to see some of those sights. And I think he was pleased with the fact that I went in because he did tell me one time, “I often wondered where I would be today if I stayed in the navy and not gotten out.” What a difference—a different type of life he would have had.

And I said, “Well, that’s not a good thing to be thinking because I probably wouldn’t be here, Dad.” [laughter]

TS:

That’s right.

SH:

But I think he was—He was rather pleased with it.

TS:

Well, with your mother being—since you’re the only child, do you think that had anything to do with her views about, you know, what—

SH:

I think so.

TS:

—you moving away and away from—

SH:

I think it did. I really think it did. I think she really wanted to keep me close by and—being in Roanoke two hours away, that was pretty tough for her anyway. But I had tried—When I got out of nursing school, I worked at a 4-H camp for the summer because I thought that’d be a nice little vacation after all that hard work in school. And it was fun, and then I took my state boards and started looking for a real nursing job. And I actually went to the hospital in Galax [Virginia] and tried to put in an application, and I was told because I had a BSN [Bachelor of Science in Nursing] I was too qualified.

TS:

Too qualified?

SH:

Too qualified. And I didn’t have any experience, so they, I guess at that point in time, only used BSN nurses for like administrative-type positions. And since I had no experience doing anything except working in a camp, they weren’t going to even look at me. So I ended up—I thought, “Well, Roanoke has got lots of hospitals, and so I’ll go down and put in some applications.” And having gone through nursing school and the different areas that we had to go through, I knew I really wasn’t too keen on med[ical]/surg[ical]. So I proceeded to—They said, “Where do you want to work?”

And I said, “I’ll take the first opening you have on OB [obstetrics] or mental health or psych—your psychiatric unit.” And the first one that opened up was on the psychiatric unit, and that’s how I ended up in mental health. It was just—

TS:

Oh, I see.

SH:

—a toss of the coin. But I did—I really didn’t like it all that much. I mean, it was a nice place to work and the people were really great. But at that time, the therapies that they were doing—The hospital that I was working with at that time did a lot of shock therapy, and that’s just something that I wasn’t really that keen on. So when I went into the air force and got to my first assignment, they were like—if you—They gave me the air force specialty code, the AFSC, for a mental health nurse because I had worked in a facility for nine months and I had three months of training, when I was in school, in psychiatric nursing. So that equated—For them, that equated to twelve months, one year, so they threw me into mental health.

And I said, “Well, what if I don’t want to be a mental health nurse?”

“Well, then you better let us know within one year so we can change things around.”

But once I got into the air force and started working on the active duty side, I really enjoyed it. It was totally different, just totally different from civilian nursing.

TS:

Oh. Well, how do you think it was different?

SH:

The therapies—There was a lot more that the nurses did, regarding therapy. And when I think back on it, at that time—Now, my charge nurse, was just this little bitty short guy with a Napoleon complex, and I still keep in touch with him to this day. We send Christmas letters back and forth. I think he’s in his—He’s probably in his upper seventies by now. And but he was just a little spitfire, and that was his unit. The physicians just visited [laughs] and saw the patients and wrote orders, and the nurses did just about everything else. We had our own group therapy sessions that we ran. We did activities with the patients. It was just a whole different experience than what I’d had before. And again, the population was a lot different because we’re looking at young adults, primarily, in that setting.

TS:

Now this is in Sheppard, right, you were talking about?

SH:

Yes.

TS:

Okay, Sheppard Air Force Base. Well, you’re also—You’re in close to the end just after [the] Vietnam [War].

SH:

Yes.

TS:

How did that affect the type of work that you had to do?

SH:

We didn’t really see—By that time, we weren’t really seeing a lot of the post-traumatic stress disorders. We weren’t really seeing a lot of that from Vietnam. Most of the patients that we were seeing—we were really close to Lackland [Air Force Base], and we were also—Sheppard, at that time, was the—primarily at the mental health center for the air force, so if you had an individual who had a problem that needed an evaluation and possibly to be medically boarded out, and they were in Spain, they were sent to us and we had to do an evaluation and decide whether or not they could return to active duty. So we saw a lot of the younger population. It was rare that—Occasionally you would get somebody in who was an older military person, but not very often. In that setting it was usually—It was usually mostly the younger folks that we were seeing.

TS:

What kind of issues did you have to deal with?

SH:

Oh, everything from psychosis—all types of psychosis—depression, behavior-type disorders; it ran the whole gamut at that point in time.

TS:

Did you have anyone that was, like, especially memorable to you, you know, in either way?

SH:

In regard to patients?

TS:

Yes.

SH:

Oh. [pause] Yeah. There were several. [laughs] We had—There were a couple of times that we would get people in who were very delusional.

And I can remember one time being in report, and the nurse that was reporting off said, “Well, we have another patient who was admitted today who thinks that they’re Jesus.”

And I said, “That’s going to be kind of interesting because now we have three who have the same delusion on the same unit. What happens when they get together?”

And she says, “Don’t worry about it. They already have it figured out. One’s the Father, one’s the Holy Ghost, and one’s the Son.”

And I said, “You’ve got to be kidding.” [chuckles[

And it was just amazing how sometimes you would get them in a setting and you think, “Okay, this is great. This is going to be good reality therapy. They’re going to understand.” And they just figured out the other way.

But some really, really sweet people, they just had problems. Unfortunately, we had—At that point, we had seclusion rooms and isolation rooms that we possibly had to use. Those were never fun. And we had intercom systems so we could listen to what was going on, in particular if you just had someone in there in isolation. We had—We had one patient one time who came in and had taken LSD and would have flashbacks and would get extremely violent. That was really scary. Just—just about anything you could think of.

It was really—for a nurse who was working—wanted to mental health, it was—You just about saw anything and everything. So it really was a good learning experience, a really good learning experience. And in the meantime, I got sent to flight nursing school, so I got to do some of those things, too, so.

TS:

I was going to ask you, too—I think—I might have to back up just a little bit. But do you remember, when you went through officer’s training, like, your first day or your first experience, what that was like for you?

SH:

I had only flown—I had probably been in an airplane, I think, once. I had flown from like Roanoke or Greensboro [North Carolina] down to Myrtle Beach [South Carolina] for a week or something. That was the only time I had ever been in an airplane. So I left from—I believe I left from Roanoke, had to fly to Atlanta [Georgia]—because you had to go through Atlanta no matter where you were going, at that point in time—on Piedmont Airlines, and from there flew on into Dallas [Texas] and then had to catch what we called the little puddle-jumper from Dallas up to Wichita Falls [Texas] to the airport.

That was the scariest flight for me, right there, because it was a small airplane. I had not been on anything that small before, and I could see both the pilots sitting right in front of us, and I just remember looking down at the ground—and we had gone up pretty high, we were up pretty high—and it was a little hazy, and all I can remember seeing was this crack in the windshield and the water dripping through the windshield. [laughs] And not knowing any better I’m thinking, “Wonder what happens if that breaks?” But it was just a really—that experience I’ll never forget. Since then—Now, I think back on that now and think how really silly and stupid that was, but at the time that was a big deal to me.

But I got to the airport and then there was a shuttle and someone there to pick us up and they took us to the BOQ [bachelor officers’ quarters] and got us settled and told us where we needed to be on our first day. And it was just meeting everyone and finding out it was primarily nurses, there were physicians, and then we also had anyone who was a lawyer or legal officers were in this class also.

TS:

Were they men and women together?

SH:

Yes, all together. Nobody really had any military experience at all, so they, in two weeks, tried to teach us how to march, how to salute. And it was scary going out because not only were we close to Lackland, but Sheppard was also training base, so those kids that were in basic training then came up to Sheppard for their tech[nical] school. So they’re, like, in their dorms, you know, saluting pictures of all the officers, and we don’t have a clue who they are, what their rank is, none of this, and we’re petrified. It was to the point where you were literally crossing the street not to have to salute somebody because you were scared to death.

TS:

[laughs] I remember being on the other end of that.

SH:

And it was like, “I think they’re following us just to get us to do this!” [laughter]

TS:

That’s funny. Well, what did you think about, like, the first time you put on your uniform?

SH:

Really being scared that I wasn’t getting things on correctly and did it fit the way it was supposed to and just getting—We had two week, so of course your first uniform they want that to look nice on you, so they make sure they do the alterations and get everything so that it fits you nice when you have it on. And then you get told, “Well, let’s see, how much do you get in your pay, because you’re paying for these uniforms. We give them to the enlisted, but we don’t give them to the officers.” [cell phone rings]

I was just like, “Wow, okay. How much do I get paid?” [laughter] Which was probably—was not a whole lot. I just remember it not being a whole lot because I know buying my first car and—because I did that there, too, while I was stationed at Sheppard.

But I was one of the ones who went to officer basic training at Sheppard, and everybody else got to leave and go somewhere else. I think there was like three of us that had to stay at Sheppard.

TS:

Yeah. Well, so when you’re done with your two weeks and then you start your regular, you know, duty, where did you live? What were your living quarters like?

SH:

Initially, I was in the BOQ. And the temporary ones, to start with. I’m not sure I ever got to move out of them. I think—No, I know I did. I had to because I would have been permanent party then, so I moved into a different BOQ room. And it was like a room, you had the sink, you had a bathroom. I don’t even believe there was any place to really cook, so you had to eat either at the officer’s club or somewhere else. You weren’t really eating in the room that much, unless you wanted to bring something in and just—that you could zap in the microwave or something. And back then they really didn’t have a lot of stuff that you could do that with.

TS:

Right.

SH:

So it was like, “I really need to get out of this room.” It was just really—I really didn’t like it.

TS:

Kind of confining, in a way?

SH:

It was confining. It was drab. I know some of the girls had really—who lived on base for over a year, had fixed their rooms up really nice, and I’m like, “I’m not really interested in this.”

Luckily for me I did have a sponsor, and when we got together, we found out that we were both working on the same unit. And Maggie was already first lieutenant. I had come in [and] my commission was as a second lieutenant. And they had told me that with a BSN, in six months I’d be promoted to first lieutenant. So I’m figuring, okay, that’s a pay raise.

And my sponsor and I just really hit it off really well. We just had a lot of similarities. And working on the same unit, we figured, okay, we’re not going to probably be working the same shifts because we ordinarily—most of the time, we didn’t have two nurses on a shift because on day shift we would have the charge nurse and another nurse, and then evening shift was one nurse, and then there was a night nurse for the entire—that half of the hospital, for mental health. So we thought, “Well, we’re not going to be working the same shift, so that would work out. We wouldn’t be getting in each other’s hair too much.” And we decided that we were going to start looking for a place off-base.

And that was quite an adventure. [chuckles] We found a house through the base housing that we could rent. So we talked to the landlord and signed all the paperwork and decided to move in and—I don’t—I remember having a couch that was a sleeper sofa moved and my household goods. I really didn’t have a lot of household goods at that time. So whatever I had, they came and they delivered them to that house. Well, not even—none of us—not even thinking about it at all, we’re in Texas, we’re in the south, and—very much, very much in the south. And my sponsor was—Maggie was half Puerto Rican, half black. And we realized that our neighbors—And we were in this nice little community, but the neighbors weren’t really, you know, talking that much to us. But we had the guys and girls that we knew from the base would come out and they were helping us, you know, get stuff moved in and doing different things around the house. And we had some issues with our house: someone broke in and started a little fire in their garage and snuffed it out and all this. And we’re kind of—The light bulb went off and we were like, “That’s the problem. They’re looking at us. They’re getting all of these ideas about who we really are that we’re not, so we ended up moving.”

TS:

Who did they think you were?

SH:

I think they really thought that we were either—First of all, they probably didn’t like the fact that they looked at Maggie and all they saw was a black woman and a white woman living together. And then they would see these different guys coming in and out, friends of ours from the base that were helping us with stuff. I think they just thought—They were just very prejudiced. Prejudice was really running high. And we moved into an apartment after that and we had no more problems. But it was just being in that house, I think, in that—

TS:

That community.

SH:

—that neighborhood, that community that didn’t work out. It was kind of a—I had never experienced that before; Maggie had. She was from New York and grew up in New York, so she was quite much more familiar with it than I was. And to this day, we still—We still keep in touch. We have always stayed friends through that. We were—She was there for about a year and a half, and then she was transferred to Alaska. So we still stayed in touch, though, all these years. She lives in D.C. now, so we still get to visit every once in a while, back and forth—

TS:

Well, that’s night.

SH:

—which is good.

TS:

Well, so the time period that you’re in—You’re in the nursing corps aspect. How were your relationships with men and women in the military at that time?

SH:

In the medical arena, it was different than—initially, it was different. It was much more relaxed, and I think on the mental health side—Sheppard was like—the hospital at Sheppard, at that time—and maybe it still is, I don’t know—was literally half med/surg and half mental health. So it was almost as though the med/surg side didn’t want to really admit that we were over there. So, we really didn’t mix very much from that standpoint.

And I think we were a lot more lax in our rank structure. At that point in time, we commonly called each other by our first names. Our patients did not call us Lieutenant White, Lieutenant Williams; they called us by our first names because that was, at that time, the therapeutic way to deal with patients and staff.

I don’t know that there was actually—I’m sure there probably was a difference in how male nurses and female nurses were treated. If you—and maybe not necessarily in the fact that they got promoted faster than we did because I was promoted on time every time. I really had no issues with that. As far as job selection: probably if they could get a male nurse who was the same rank as me, they probably would have, at that point, gotten the job sooner than I would have. But other than that I didn’t—

TS:

But you didn’t personally experience anything in particular?

SH:

No. No, nothing like that. It was either that or I was real naïve, one or the other. [laughs]

TS:

So your—The superiors that you worked with, how do you feel like you were treated as far [as], like, you were kind of talking about promotions, advancement, reviews that were done on you and things like that?

SH:

I thought they were very fair. I think I always felt that if I did the job I was supposed to do and tried to do my best and tried to excel where I could, that that would be recognized and rewarded. And I think it was. I know at Sheppard we had a—There was a male nurse who was the chief of our department. He was the lieutenant colonel. And I always felt that he was fair in the way he went about selecting people to go to the different schools. At that point in time, they were trying to get just about every nurse they could possibly get to go to flight nursing school. But they had the nurses who were having to decide if they were going to stay in after their initial commitment or if they were actually going to get out. So if you were going to stay in you were put into a different status. And at that point, I think that played more into his decision making about who got schools and things than anything else.

TS:

Than anything else.

SH:

He was going to promote the people that were going to stay in. Because you’re spending all that money on them, you really want to know that you’re going to get your money’s worth out of it [and] that they’re not just going to go to the school and then say, “Oh, sorry. I don’t like this. Goodbye.” And I think that was more what I saw at that point in time.

TS:

What did you think about staying in or getting out at that time?

SH:

I was happy to stay in. I was enjoying it for the most part, I was learning a lot, meeting all kinds of people. I actually met my husband at Sheppard, so that was a good thing. [laughter] I said I can’t really say anything bad about Sheppard, although we all did. Wichita Falls is just a little redneck-y hick town, is the way we looked at it at that time. And there wasn’t a whole lot to do. There was a lake about forty-five minutes away, and that’s where most of us ended up: Lake Arrowhead, which was just a mud hole. But that was a lot of what our social—socializing was.

TS:

That was what I was going to ask you next about, was what did you do for your social life?

SH:

Well, the officers’ club.

TS:

Yeah. So what kind of things did you do at the officers’ club?

SH:

Meet pilots. [laughs] At the time, if you were single, that was the thing to do. If you wanted to meet somebody in the air force, that’s where you went. Usually on a Friday night, everybody that worked at the hospital who was off on Friday night would go to the officers’ club. And you’d have dinner and then they would have either a DJ or sometimes they’d have a live band or they’d have some type of entertainment there.

And at that point in time, nobody was being worried about the alcohol consumption on the base. And that was a big part of the social scene for a lot of people. It kept our—And that went all the way from the airmen’s club, the NCO [non-commissioned officer] club, the officers’ club, everything. To the point that it kept us very busy on Friday nights when I would be working because we would get all these airmen in who were, you know, respiratory arrest, cardiac arrest because they’ve had too much alcohol. They were trying to drink tequila to get to the worm at the bottom of the bottle, most of them. That was the story they would give me the next day, anyway. But—and that was initially when I got to Sheppard, it was like that.

But pretty soon, somebody at the top got wise and started putting limits on when certain facilities could be open, and starting out with their airmen’s club. There was promotion parties, and you meet people and have get-togethers at their houses and different—Mostly it was all military people, initially, that you’re meeting. I didn’t really get that involved in anything that much out in the community because there was just so much stuff going on between work and things we had to do on base. We were also required, as officers, to be an officer of the day on the base. And that is: you were basically the eyes and ears of the base commander at that time. And you were the officer who had to be there for a set period of time, and you were supposed to make rounds and have your presence be known at the different dining halls for the airmen, different places on base that they had requirements for us to go.

TS:

How was that? Did you enjoy that at all?

SH:

I didn’t enjoy that at all. [laughter]

TS:

Didn’t enjoy that at all. Why not?

SH:

I was out of my comfort zone.

TS:

Oh, I see.

SH:

And again, walking in—And still, by that point in time, I was beginning to get familiar with the enlisted ranks.  I still was not that comfortable with it. My husband, to this day, still laughs at me.“You know, you guys didn’t really know anything.”

“Absolutely right. You’re absolutely right, and please don’t ask me to salute when I go into the base if you’re driving.” [laughter]

TS:

I had another nurse tell me the same thing about—It always kind of frustrated her that she never got a lot of training about the military aspects. Of course, she was a nurse and that was the focus. And she said it always made her kind of feel a little bit, you know, not inadequate, but just like she wasn’t prepared for things that she came across. So it’s interesting that you have a similar experience. She was actually much earlier. I think she was probably in the fifties.

SH:

So they must have just—things must have just continued on that way because I know we just really—it was almost—We kind of equated ourselves to a MASH unit, and that’s kind of how most of the mental health side, anyway—The officers there, that’s sort of how we behaved because that’s what we thought was okay for us to do. That did change. As the years went by, it got a lot more restricted. Initially, when I went in, they would tell you there was this wall which needed to be between the enlisted and the officers. We really didn’t see it that way because we had to work so close together on the units with the patients. And we really didn’t see it that way.

TS:

So it was a permeable barrier.

SH:

For us it was. Because we had to—We had to work together to work with the patients. We got to know each other probably much better and a much closer group than other work areas did on the base. So, that was much more prominent there than it was with us.

TS:

Now you had said that there was a number of male nurses. About—do you have a ratio of—

SH:

Oh, gosh. There weren’t—

TS:

Not exact, but—

SH:

—as many. There weren’t as many. There were more female nurses than males, at that point, that I remember being on the floors. There were four units at the time, four different floors. Two—I think three of them, when I first got there, had male nurses as charge nurses. And then when they started moving on to other bases and their replacements would come in, then it started kind of getting more female charge nurses in than male. And I guess that was—I didn’t find before, in the civilian world, I didn’t work with any male nurses at all. So it was a different—

TS:

Different experience?

SH:

Different experience, yeah.

TS:

Now, you had originally told me that one of the reasons that you went in was to travel. Are you getting any traveling under your belt?

SH:

Well, I got to San Antonio [Texas] a couple of times. We were required to keep up our continuing education units. And that was always, “Okay, when are we going to San Antonio?” because that was a fun place to go, and I did enjoy that.

I did catch a military hop. It was the first time I was ever on a [Lockheed] C5 [Galaxy]. And I remember going out in the bus and thinking, “If you park this bus next to that airplane, it looks like a peanut.” It was huge, absolutely huge. And I remember looking at the guy going, “Are you sure this thing’s going to get off the ground?” And my roommate at the time, Maggie, and I were catching a hop out to California because we wanted to go out to California to visit some friends. And that was exciting. That was a real exciting trip for us, you know, to get to do that.

I didn’t really use the hop system that much. I think I was a little scared of it because if you get there and you’re stuck, how do you get back? And then they’re going to consider you AWOL [absent without leave], so you really have to be careful how you work that. I probably didn’t use it as much as I should have, but I did get a couple of little trips in. Most of the time when I took leave, oddly enough, it was coming back home to see family. And that was what we did with it. We didn’t usually take leave and take off and go on a trip somewhere. My kids, this day and age, they would do that. [laughter]

TS:

So what kind of—When you were talking about the officers’ club had music, what kind of music were you listening to?

SH:

Oh, disco was really big back then, really big. Occasionally we would get a band in. I–mostly it was just music that people could get up and dance to. And there were a couple of dance floors there. They would have—They would do Mongolian barbecue every once in a while, and then they would do the shrimp peels. You pay a certain amount and you could go in and just sit there and eat shrimp. And I absolutely loved that. That was one of my favorite times to go to the O-club, when they had that. The Mongolian barbecue was good. That was always fun. That was the first time I’d ever had that. First time I’d ever had real Mexican food was in Wichita Falls. And I thought I was never, ever going to learn how to eat jalapeños [laughs] without burning my face off.

TS:

Did you learn how?

SH:

I did.

TS:

Did you? [laughs]

SH:

I had a friend that—I had actually met her at the officers’ club, and I ended up, before I left Sheppard, living in house—I had rented a house right across the street from her. And she was born and raised in Oklahoma and Texas, so I found out what a red draw was: beer and tomato juice. That was disgusting. I was like, “How can anybody drink that?” And I kept saying “How do you eat those jalapeños? You’re just like popping them in and I’m—You must have been born with one in your mouth or something.”

And she’s like, “Well, the secret is you never let it touch your lips. And if it gets overly hot, you do not drink water. You don’t pick up anything to drink. You get a bread or a cracker or something like that and eat that and that absorbs the heat.”

And I’m like, “Ah ha!” So I did finally learn how to eat jalapeños.

TS:

I actually never knew. Thank you for the tip! [laughter] I don’t think I’ll be popping them in my mouth, though.

All right, so you’re meeting people from all over. How was that experience for you?

SH:

That was—That was different. Just different cultures and several people were just amazed at how naïve I was. I mean, I just grew up a little country girl. I didn’t know anything to do with the big city. I mean, the big city to me was Roanoke, Virginia, and that was really not all that big for somebody who came from New York.

TS:

Well, if you’re explaining it to somebody who’s in the civilian world, like the difference between having a job and working as a nurse—How was it different, do you think, from civilian nursing, to be a military nurse?

SH:

In the military, you had a lot more authority. There were procedures and issues you could take care of [that] you would not dream of doing that as a civilian nurse. When we were in charge on the floor, we were in charge. The physicians did come in, they saw the patients, they worked with us. I really always felt like, at that point, it worked more as a team than what I had previously seen as a civilian nurse. But again, my civilian nursing experience was a grand total of nine months on one unit, so that’s sort of what I was gauging it by. We were involved in all kinds of different committees. I think, nowadays, civilian nursing is a little bit more like that. But I always felt just the self-esteem, I think, as a nurse in the military, I always felt that was a little bit higher than sometimes you see in the civilian setting.

TS:

That’s interesting. I was also thinking—I’m trying to do some years, here. I’m thinking, okay, in the period that you’re in Sheppard, what years would that have been?

SH:

Seventy-seven to ’81.

TS:

Okay. So you were actually there during the—when Jimmy Carter’s president and we’re having the crisis in Iran with the hostages. And I believe the Shah was sent to Texas, wasn’t he, for his treatment?

SH:

We actually had the Shah of Iran’s son on our base for pilot training at one time. I knew of that, I never knew who he was. We had—At that time, we had agreements with other countries to train their pilots. So we had Iranian pilots, German, Dutch—I know those three for sure were on the base all at one time. And that was interesting just to meet some of them and learn about their cultures. And the first thing I found out, especially with the Iranians, was they were fascinated because I was blonde. And anybody who had any lighter colored hair, they had just never seen that before, never seen it before.

TS:

So how would that experience be for you? What would—How would that be, when they would meet you?

SH:

Well, it was—[chuckles]. In some ways, it was okay. A couple of them really wanted to just meet and talk with you. And others, of course, were looking for whatever they could manage to get out of a relationship at that time. And it was—a lot of girls, I think, got caught up into that, a lot of the—some of the nurses. But the ones who really wanted to just sit down and have a good conversation and learn about each other, it was different. It was different for them because they had much more freedom in our country to experience and see things and do things than they did back in their old country. Because we had several—I know several girls who thought, you know, those stars in their eyes, that they were meeting this wonderful handsome foreign pilot and he was going to take them away. And then they’d leave and go back to the country, and they’re still sitting there. And that was kind of hard for some of them to—to stomach. I had kind of gotten beyond some of my naiveté—or was not quite so naïve anymore. And it was like, “Hmm, no, they’re going to go away.” [laughter]

TS:

Well, do you remember anything about the political situation at that time?

SH:

Not excessively. I do remember the Iranian students—I think I was still there when they left. And they weren’t there anymore and we had more of the German and the Dutch students coming in at that time.

TS:

But you weren’t affected by that political situation?

SH:

No. No, not really. We didn’t have any—There were no issues at our hospital. And we were not—even though, I guess we all knew we were in the Cold War still, but it wasn’t really effecting what we were doing right there. We had not started any of our medical readiness training—was kind of way back over there somewhere. We really hadn’t started doing any of that. Probably the only thing I got in regards to any training that would have helped in scenarios like that would have been flight nursing school, going to survival school.

TS:

Did you do either of those?

SH:

I did flight nursing school. We had to go out and spend a week out in the lovely desert out in Texas, down around—somewhere down around San Antonio—I couldn’t find it now if I had to—and camp out with next to nothing to eat. We had to learn how to take care of our water so that we didn’t get sick, those kinds of things. And that was—that was kind of tough, and especially being with [laughs]—they divided us up into little groups when they did this, and they dropped one group off different places. So we really didn’t have any contact, but we knew we were all out there, but your little group had to learn how to survive. And I can remember, one of the girls in my group was from New York. She had never camped a day in her life, and she was really struggling with it. And the instructors would come back and and they would talk to us about, you know, “How are you doing?” and, “We know this is really tough.”

And I walked down to have my little interview with the instructor, and I’m like, “This is great! This is just like camping out!”

And he goes, “You can go back now.” [laughter]

But it was kind of tough. We had to learn how to make our own tents out of just tarps, and they gave us instructions on, “Tonight, you will make a two-man tent,” “Tonight, you will make a tent that will take care of all of you,” and we had to do that out of the tarps. There were no bathrooms out there, so we had to learn—we decided that the tarp—one of those tarps needed to be made into a toilet. [laughs] So it was—

TS:

Little privacy?

SH:

For a little bit of privacy. But that was about all the training we really got at that point in time. Nobody really seemed to be, from my end, super-concerned about what was going on in the world and how it was going to affect us militarily.

It was just sort of like, “Where do you want to go for your next assignment?”

And, “Is that a really good place?” and, “What can you do there?”

Of course, I wanted to go to Hawaii, and my lovely recruiter made sure they never told me there’s not a mental health unit in Hawaii. And I said, “Why not?” [laughter] But by that time, I was pretty much locked in to mental health, so I was restricted on the bases I could go to.

TS:

Oh, I see. I see.

SH:

Because every base did not have—And at that time the air force was only using mental health nurses on in-patient units. So clinics and outpatient services: I couldn’t get an assignment to do that at all. So I sort of looked at flight nursing school as, “That would be exciting because then I could travel and see the world.” And I remember when they were talking about the different patients that they carried on their air-evac[uation] missions. And I knew it was really tough to get a flying assignment as a flight nurse because there were so many of them out there. And then I realized that the majority of patients that were carried on those flights were mental health patients, and I thought, “I don’t really need to do that.” [laughter] I can’t imagine having to deal with somebody who’s going psychotic and we’re—

TS:

On a plane?

SH:

—twenty-five thousand feet up in the air, I don’t think that would be very much fun. So, I never did really pursue that.

TS:

Well, you said you met your husband at Sheppard. Did you get married at Sheppard?

SH:

We—We actually got married by a Justice of the Peace at Sheppard so we could get a joint spouse assignment, because he had already been notified that he was being assigned to [Royal Air Force Station] Bentwaters. And so we went ahead and we got married by the Justice of the Peace, and then we went back to his home town and—because he comes from a big Catholic family—and I figured it was easier just to do it there than it was to drag everybody down to Virginia.

TS:

Where was he from?

SH:

He was from Shamokin, Pennsylvania, up in the coal country, close to the Geisinger Medical Center in Danville, Pennsylvania. But—So we went there and we had a nice wedding with family and friends, and then we took off to go to England. So we were both assigned to England. And that was exciting until we got there, then it got a little depressing because we had to wait for the cars to get there, and I had an Irish Setter that I just sat and cried because I just could not think about giving her up.

TS:

Couldn’t bring her over, right, because of the quarantine period?

SH:

We took her over. I said, “You know, we are two officers. We are going to have both of our pay. We get extra housing allowance. What are we paying for that we can’t afford to take this?” It cost us, at that time, probably about a thousand dollars to take her over there. She had to be in quarantine for six months, so we had to pay for that. We had to pay for the flight over. So we did one smart thing: we shipped a car and the dog together at the same time so when we got over there, she was halfway through her quarantine.

And—but I can remember sitting on the back porch and crying, “I can’t take you with me. He says you can’t go.”

And he comes outside and says, “That’s it. You can take the dog! You can take the dog!” [laughter]

TS:

I remember that quarantine period seemed awfully long. But so the quarantine started before you got there. I see, interesting.

SH:

Yeah, so she started already. And it was not like it was even the same dog when I got there.

TS:

Aw.

SH:

She just—She had really lost weight. She was actually was beginning to look like an Irish Setter because we sort of fed her a little too well. But so yeah, that was kind of depressing because I had to wait for the car to get there so I could go see my dog. And then we had to find a place to live that was going to work out for both of us, because it was about an hour and a half between the two bases. So we finally found a really cute little bungalow house that had American-size rooms; all of our friends were really jealous because they had these teeny-tiny rooms in England. And they told you flat-out, “Do not take a queen-size bed. You will not be able to get it into your rooms.” And we had queen-size beds. We had a huge dining room set that we didn’t want to leave in storage because we were afraid, for three years, that we would come back and it be destroyed. And it had belonged to my husband’s grandparents. So we took it over with us and everything fit.

TS:

Crossed your fingers and it all worked out. Well, that’s—Now, what did your husband do for a living in the service?

SH:

He’s a pilot.

TS:

Ah, you did meet a pilot.

SH:

[chuckles] I did meet a pilot.

TS:

What did he fly?

SH:

He flew [Fairchild Republic] A-10s [Thunderbolt II] in England.

TS:

I see.

SH:

When we went over there. He was part of—He flew the [Northrop] T-38 [Talon] when we were at Sheppard and taught German and Dutch students how to fly.

TS:

Oh, that’s how you knew about all the pilots. Okay. All right, that’s the connection. I was wondering. Interesting. So how did you—once you got settled in England, what—And you were stationed at [Royal Air Force Base] Lakenheath?

SH:

Yes.

TS:

And he was at Bentwater?

SH:

He was at Bentwaters.

TS:

Okay. How was that experience?

SH:

It was definitely different. The climate—just alone getting used to the climate. And everyone had told us, “It’s really damp and it takes you a while to get acclimatized.” I thought I was going to absolutely freeze to death. And of course, the first week you’re there, all you want to do is sleep. It’s just that I’d never been through so many time changes before. I mean, I thought going to Texas was bad. [TS chuckles] But going to England? It just really wiped us out.

And my husband was at Bentwaters and I was at Lakenheath in the BOQs until we could actually get a house and get the cars and get ourselves squared away as to what we were doing. And then [chuckles]—when we went over, we were both actually thinking about Squadron Officers’ School—and my husband more so than me. I thought, “Well, I’m probably not going to get to go from over here.” Very few nurses get to go to squadron officer school because you have to come, again, all the way back to Alabama. And they’re probably not going to take any nurses. Within the first year—I was there for three years. So the first year we were there, I got orders to go to Squadron Officers’ School. And again, it was the fact that I was one of those nurses who had said, “Yes, I’m going to stay in the military.”

TS:

Right.

SH:

And I ended up being the only nurse qualified in the entire area to go. So I was excited about that. And thought, “Well, that’s good. I’ll be able to get in shape” because they do have a very good physical fitness program attached to squadron officers’ school. So I had started—I had done a little bit of running so I thought, “Well, I’ll be okay.” And I was also very interested in horseback riding—

TS:

In England?

SH:

—so I had actually bought a horse at a barn, a local barn, trying to learn how to ride English. And my goal while I was there: I just wanted to go on a fox hunt. I just thought that would be the coolest thing, and I thought, you know, “I’m living out—.” And living out in the British community was really a neat thing. The people who stayed on base, I just really felt bad for them because they really did not get the good experience of that.

And work-wise we would get—The majority of the diagnoses that we saw was depression. And we saw a lot of depressed dependants because at that time they were taking what we call first-term airmen and shipping them overseas. It was their first experience in the military, and they’re sticking them with airmen’s pay on a base. They can’t afford to do anything. They can’t afford to go anywhere. And the ones who have wives and families are stuck in a housing development that’s an hour away from the base and they have one car. And Lakenheath was known for pulling big exercises where those guys were out there—it was twelve hours on, twelve hours off. They didn’t go home for that period of time. So depression was really big. And I really felt sorry for those kids, thinking, you know, “You’re not really getting the good experience here of what this entire culture has,” because it is just a completely different culture than what—anything I had experienced here.

We were lucky. We had really good neighbors around us. We were in a little small village that, if you looked at it, you would not even consider it a village. There was like a little one-way road that went by our house, and I always hated it when I would have to meet somebody and get around them. And you’re driving on the wrong side of the road, according to us—

TS:

[chuckles] Right.

SH:

—and that got to be quite exciting because your reaction when you’re in a situation is to automatically do what you do in the States. And luckily most of us learned you just brake. Just brake and stop, dead in your tracks, and let them figure it out.

TS:

Instead of turning. [laughter]

SH:

And most of the time, the British people would just sit in their cars and laugh at us and they’d go around us or whatever, because they knew, the way our license plates were, that we were Americans.

TS:

Yeah. That identified—right.

SH:

“Those dumb Americans. They’re over here trying to drive again.” But it was very—It was very different.

TS:

So what other kind of things did you get to do in—well, first, with the squadron training that you did, did you—When you came back from that, what happened? Did you have—did you utilize that at all?

SH:

That was very helpful because that was probably the little piece of military training that would have been nice to have all the time.

TS:

Right.

SH:

And that was just a very—very much kind of a bonding experience. I have not kept in touch with the people that was—were in my little squadron at Squadron Officers’ School, but we had our own little group. We all lived in the same area in the BOQ. It was myself and one other female, everybody else in our group was male. Not very many females went in residence to that school at that time, so they would kind of dole them out among the squadrons. I guess they didn’t want to have—

TS:

This was the mid-eighties, right?

SH:

Yeah.

TS:

Okay.

SH:

They didn’t want to have just one squadron of all women.

TS:

Oh, I see.

SH:

And we had physical fitness we had to do. We had to run. And to me, I never thought of myself as being a runner, never in a million years. And when I came back from that course, I was like, “I can really do this.” And I would catch myself. I would go out and run around my house in England on the little roads and stuff, and I was up to like five miles a day. I had hills that I had to go up, and I would never have thought of myself as ever having—being able to do anything like that. I just wasn’t a very physical person. As a kid growing up, I would play, but nothing—no organized sports, no—

TS:

No athletics or anything like that.

SH:

No. So I didn’t see myself as being very athletic at all, but that was—

TS:

So this—

SH:

—that was a good accomplishment.

TS:

Excellent.

SH:

I was really proud of that. And of course, the following summer, my husband got to go. And I said, “Gee whiz, here we are in England; we’re supposed to be traveling and seeing the world.” And when we got the assignment and I talked with people who had been to Lakenheath, they were like, “You’re going to love it. The patient census is always low. You’re going to have lots of time off. You’re going to get to go do things and see things.” And we did, but our patient census was—We were bulging at the seams the whole time I was there. [laughter]

And it was—the actual work experience, again, you just had people who did not want to get out and enjoy themselves being there. They saw it as just being depressing and the weather was always gray and it was dreary, and you really sort of had to get over that and get involved in the culture and what was going on. And my husband and I, we would do—Whenever we would have days off together, we would find something to do. We bought a Volkswagen van, camper van, one of those pop-up things?

TS:

Sure.

SH:

So we’d throw the dog in the Volkswagen and we’d put our stuff in for the weekend and we would just take off and go, and just see different places and drive all over England, wherever we thought we could get in a weekend and get back, and find places to camp because they did that all the time over there. And it was neat. It was really neat to get to see the country that way.

TS:

What—You said it was a different culture than you’re used to. How was it different?

SH:

Everything—I always said everything moved at a much slower pace, and especially where we were. We were pretty much in the country. London was about two hours away. None of us wanted to drive on—I think it was the M1, the big major highway, because it was just like breakneck speed all the way to London. And I used to say, “British people are such mild-mannered, calm, easy-going people until you put them behind the wheel of a car and they turn into two-headed monsters.” But it was just—The pace was just slow. You couldn’t—If you had something that you needed to get taken care of, you weren’t going to be able to do it.

[Comments about visitors redacted—recording paused.]

TS:

Okay, we had a slight little break there, but we’re back. So, let’s see, Sandy. So you’re in England, you’re camping out, you’re seeing some of the sights, and your job is busy, right?

SH:

Yes.

TS:

Is there any difference about being in the air force in England as it was back in Sheppard?

SH:

There is. There definitely is. I think military decorum was becoming a little bit more stringent for the medical folks. And plus the fact that we were in England, and this was still during the Cold War, so for me it was also the reality that my husband was at Bentwaters flying A-10s and spending about six to eight weeks—he would go—About every six to eight weeks, he was spending two weeks over in Germany at a forward operating location. And at that time, you’re thinking, “Okay, so if the Russians come across the border, he’s going to take off and I won’t even be able to say goodbye because I’ll be sitting here.”

And so we were beginning to do a lot more, I guess, exercises and looking at—That’s probably the first time I had to wear a gas mask and had to go through that training. We actually—Even though we were a real hospital and had real patients in there, we still did exercises. And the entire hospital would be included in that. The first time I ever recall being on a recall list. And that got to be very interesting because if the phone rang at 4 a.m, I would just kind of—If my husband and I were both home at the same time, I would just kind of roll over and he would have to get up and answer the phone. [chuckles] And we both had responsibilities for recall. If we got recalled in, we had to pack up and go in. I would go, “It has to be for you. It must be for you.” And we were both the same rank, so that got to be really funny. I’d hear him answer the phone and he would go, “Which one?” [laughter]

TS:

Oh, yeah. So you had the same last name, right.

SH:

Yeah. And so that got to be an exciting—It was very reality.

TS:

Right.

SH:

That was just the reality of the time that we were in. Knowing that we had Greenpeace marchers outside the base—I was constantly—Whenever I would call home and talk to Mom and Dad, that stuff was all over the TV over here, but we really weren’t seeing that much of it. Because if we knew there was a demonstration going on at the front gate, we would go in a different gate to go to work.

And my mom was like, “Are you checking under your car for bombs and all that stuff?”

And I said, “Mom, you’re watching too much TV. Turn the news off. It’s not really like that.”

But we were having a lot of that where we were. [Royal Air Force Base] Mildenhall, I guess, had more of the people who would stand at the end of the runway. And the British were really good at that: they always had the big huge cameras with the huge lenses, you know, because they were really into taking photos of any of the aircraft. And we did, in that area, have the [Lockheed SR-71] Blackbird, which was the big spy plane at that time.

TS:

SR-71?

SH:

And so—Oh, yeah. They just were, like, dying to get sights of that thing, and every once in a while it would appear. [chuckles] So it was like constantly having them sitting at the end of the runways and watching. And it was almost like you were in a little glass jar and everybody was watching you. [TS chuckles] It was [pause]—It was just different, a lot different, in that sense. You really felt like you were really, really in the military, almost like in a wartime setting.

TS:

Right. Right, because this is—I know the setting of the time simply because I was in Germany at the same period, and there were a lot of protestors about the certain missiles that—right, that could or couldn’t be installed. So I understand what you’re saying about the checking under your car, because there were some bombs going off throughout Europe and things.

SH:

Yeah. And it was a real—It was a real threat. But I think most of us just kind of took it as, “Well, that’s just part of the job. And we do this and we do this and that takes care of it.” And I never really got super excited about it. I can’t say that everybody that I ran into and met in England was extremely happy that I was an American military person there, but we met a lot of people who were very glad we were there. So it just kind of all played out.

TS:

Were you there when the Beirut barracks bombing occurred? That would have been, I think, ’84[sic, 1983], is what I’m thinking.

SH:

I left over there in May. I’m not sure.

TS:

Okay, because I was wondering if they had changed any security for coming up to the bases while you were there, with those pillars.

SH:

No, that hadn’t occurred yet.

TS:

Must have been after then, okay.

SH:

There was a lot more—it was—you used to could get on base—Once in a blue moon you had to show an ID, and it had gotten to the point where you had to have a military ID. You had to have that sticker on your vehicle to get into base. So the security was definitely beginning to tighten down and escalate.

TS:

Oh, okay. I see. So you left in May of ’84?

SH:

Yes, May of ’84. Came back to McGuire [Air Force Base] and out-processed.

TS:

Yeah, tell us about that. How did you—Why did you decide to get out?

SH:

To get out? At that time, we had started talking joint spouse assignments, and they had so many—They had guaranteed joint spouse assignments for so long, they were running out of places to put people together. It was getting to be a real major headache. So now, if it was available, you could get it, but if it wasn’t, you weren’t going to get it. And I just decided that at that time, I had sort of gotten a little disillusioned with the job. I think it was difficult for me because when I left Sheppard, I was in a charge nurse position, and when I got to Lakenheath, I was back in a staff nurse position. And it was a much smaller group, and there was nowhere else to go. So it was just those of us on that one unit that actually had to work out our schedules and all of our differences. And it just kind of had gotten a little old and I just sort of felt like, “You know, it’s time to do something else.” And I said to my husband, “You know, I can do my job as a civilian and follow you around—” [Cell phone rings, extraneous comments redacted.]

TS:

Okay, so you had decided that you could do the same—

SH:

I could do my job on the outside. It was going to be very hard for him to do his, the way I looked at it. And I thought, “Oh, Dan’s going to be a career military guy, so it’s okay. I’ll learn how to be a good officer’s wife.” [chuckling] And so I came back to McGuire and was—got all my discharge paperwork done and everything taken care of, and my husband was going to be stationed in Fayetteville [North Carolina] at Pope [Air Force Base]. He was actually going to be working as an air liaison officer with the 82nd Airborne [Division]. And his big game plan was, “If I do this, I can get my [General Dynamics] F-16 [Fighting Falcon],” because they will guarantee anyone who is a jump HALO [high altitude-low opening]—You have to jump out of those airplanes; if you do that, they will guarantee you the aircraft that you want, if there is a slot available. The only thing you cannot request is to be a Thunderbird [air demonstration pilot]. [chuckles]

So that was our whole game plan, is that I would come back and maybe work as a civilian nurse in a local hospital somewhere. And we were also looking, too, at the possibility of—We were thinking about starting a family. We’d been married for three years and thought that’s probably a good idea. And after a year and a half—and one child. I had my son Nicholas at Cape Fear [Valley] Medical Center in Fayetteville.

And my husband came back from a TDY [temporary duty assignment] out in the desert with the 82nd, and he had run into a group of the guys from a [National] Guard unit outside of Philadelphia. And they were recruiting heavy because they wanted guys to come in and fly, so they had talked with him. That was close to his home but not too close, and he came home and said, “I’ve decided I’m going to get off active duty.” Took me out to dinner to tell me this because he knew I was going to go, “What?” [chuckling]

TS:

“This isn’t our plan!”

SH:

“What happened to our plan?” But he decided he wanted to get off active duty, and he was going to go into this Air National Guard unit and fly and attempt to get a job with airlines. And I’m like, “Okay.” So we ended up leaving Fayetteville and we went to Philadelphia, lived in Glenside for three months, and things weren’t going too well with him getting hired by the airlines for a variety of reasons because—mostly because he had been out of the cockpit for a year and a half as a jump HALO.

TS:

I see.

SH:

So he was beginning to fly with the Guard unit; that was going well. And I get this letter saying, “If you do not associate yourself with a Guard or [Air Force] Reserve [Command] unit, we will—are going to be taking your commission away from you.” And that really kind of caught my attention, and I thought, “I spent six and a half years, am I willing just to throw that away? Whereas if I go into the Guard or Reserves, I can be a “weekend warrior” and finish up twenty years and get at least some retirement out of it, because the way things are going, I’m probably not going to be in a place long enough to get a retirement plan for me anyway.”

So I ended up going into the Reserve unit. Willow Grove Naval Air Station is one of the largest Reserve bases. I think they have every branch of the military Guard and Reserves there and the active duty navy presence, at that time. And it’s just a little bit north of Philadelphia, right on the outskirts. And so I went in and I talked to the reserve unit. And the guy goes, “Well, you said your husband was flying with the Guard unit. So why aren’t you talking to those medical people?”

And I said, “I didn’t know they had any!” [laughter]

So I went over and got an interview, and they had three nurse positions open. And I ended up coming in as the junior nurse, so I was in charge of immunizations in this Guard unit. And that meant, of course, that my husband and I both had drill weekends the same weekend. We would probably never have our two weeks of so-called summer camp, at that time—we would never have that probably together, so that was okay as far as kids went. So we were okay with that and we just had to work out what we were doing on the drill weekends. And initially, we were using childcare, because my husband had been hired full-time by the Guard unit and they had done daycare on base. So we would drop Nick off there, and he hated it at first and I was like, “It’s okay. I gotta go to work. Somebody take him.”

TS:

Aw. How old was he at that time?

SH:

He was probably—gosh, when we first moved up there, he was just—just over a year.

TS:

Okay.

SH:

So he was probably maybe three—two, three, four, somewhere in that age range. And the Guard unit was just a whole different experience. It was not like being military at all. [chuckles] And that took a little getting used to for me because I had gotten to the point where I was used to the military decorum and rank structure and all this, so it was much—It’s very much a new experience to do that. And I soon began to realize that all these people that are in this unit know families, they’re related, they grew up in neighborhoods together—and you’re talking Philadelphia, so the city of brotherly love—and just about everybody was from in that area. And so me being from the South, I was definitely an outsider. But they’d take you right in and, you know, you’re just part of the group.

And I worked initially as the immunizations nurse, and at that point we were still doing our shot clinics in the clinic area. So on the drill weekend, if you were scheduled for a shot, you had to come to the facility to get it. [Comments about dog redacted] And we were looking at statistics. And probably, at that point in time, the commander of the flying squadron—I was probably going to end up being his worst nightmare because the pilots were notorious for not being current on their shots. And these were guys that worked with airlines and they came in on weekends. They were required to come in during the month and fly, and it was very comfortable for them. And nobody really yelled and screamed at them at all about meeting their requirements for their shots.

Well, I then soon learned that we had different types of inspections. Where on active duty you would get what was equivalent to like a joint commission inspection, in a civilian hospital would be like a health services inspection for the medical facility. Well, Guard units got those too, and our medical unit got those. And we hadn’t done very well. [laughs] We passed. And one of the reasons was because our figures, our compliance figures, were really down.

And they said, “We just cannot—Commanders do not want to send anybody up to the clinic to get a shot because it takes them all day.”

And I’m like, “What do you mean it takes them all day? They come up, they get the shot, they sit here for fifteen minutes, and they’re told to leave.”

Well, that’s not what happens. They go visit over here and they go visit over there because, “We had to go to the clinic to get a shot,” And I’m going, “Well, this is just not going to fly.”

And there was an NCO [non-commissioned officer] who was assigned with me to be in charge of immunizations. So our full-time health technician had come up with this idea that we needed to try taking our shots on the road. So we became “the notorious shot squad.” [TS laughs] Sergeant Smith[?] and myself, we would load everything up that we needed in our—We were lucky we had an ambulance, lovingly called the “Cracker Box,” and we would load everything we needed in there for the immunizations that we had to give. We had a big roster. We would go to each of the squadrons and we would set up in their area, so commanders could just tell, “You, you, you, and you, you need to go get your shots today. They’re going to be here at this time. Be there.” And they really had no excuse. Then it came time to go down to the flying squadron. I can remember chasing guys into the bathroom. [laughter]

TS:

Geez.

SH:

“I’m here to give—.” And especially flu shots; everybody was petrified of the flu shot. Didn’t want go get it, “It gives me the flu,” “I’m not getting it,” “I can’t take that because I have to fly this week with my civilian job.” There’s nothing wrong with that; you can still fly. So we had a lot of education to do.

TS:

I see.

SH:

And by the time we left that program, we had been written up in a couple of military magazines. We had done some articles about it. Got to go to our—There was a big military medical convention, AMSUS [Association of Military Surgeons of the United States], that was held most of the time in San Antonio, once a year. We were invited to come down there and speak. That was real exciting that we got to do that.

TS:

To present your program?

SH:

To present what we were doing.

TS:

Excellent.

SH:

And for me, it was just—And again, I sit there: this is the kid who in high school could not be on the debate team because the debate coach thought I was going to pass out when somebody asked me a question. And here I am standing up in front of all these people giving a presentation. And those are the things that I got from being in the military: all the different schools that I went to, the management schools that I had to go to, and different things just to learn how to stand up and give a briefing, to learn how to stand up and give a talk, not to be afraid to do that. And I looked at that and I said, “Wow, that’s really amazing,” you know. And you really do get so much out of it that at the time you just don’t even—you don’t realize.

TS:

It’s just being absorbed over time.

SH:

It is. It is.

TS:

Interesting.

SH:

So that was exciting. So then our chief nurse at the time—We only had three nurses in the unit: the chief nurse; the education coordinator, who coordinated all the education requirements that we had to meet; and myself—t0he three of us for immunizations. The chief nurse decided to retire, so then it was kind of the ripple effect; everybody moved up. So then I became the education coordinator, and that was just getting all of the different pieces of training that we had to do and getting everybody in the clinic up to speed. And you had one weekend a month to do it. In all reality, I had one day of one weekend to do it.

TS:

Right.

SH:

And that was just an awesome job, very overwhelming. And there were times that I thought, “I’m going to look in the mirror and I’m going to be bald because I’m pulling every bit of my hair out here trying to figure out how to do this.” And a lot of the subjects I would find it was just easier if I updated myself and just did the presentation myself, rather than waiting for somebody else to come from another area to do it.

And the education requirements just kept increasing and increasing. Then we started rolling into medical readiness training, and initially we would do that when we would do our two weeks in an air force medical facility. Then the air force medical facility started downsizing and losing so much that it wasn’t worthwhile for us to walk in. And we probably had maybe—I think it was like thirty people in the unit when I first started, and when I left there was over seventy to eighty people in that squadron. And it just got to be too overwhelming for the medical facilities. And we would find that about the only thing we could go to was maybe Andrews Air Force Base or Wilford Hall [Medical Center, Lackland Air Force Base], the really big, big facilities, to put people out there. So you had people in the Guard unit that their civilian job might be that they’re a mechanic at a garage, and their military job is that they’re a med[ical] tech[nician]. And how do they keep those skills up?

TS:

Right.

SH:

So that got to be just—

TS:

Trying to coordinate all that.

SH:

Yeah.

TS:

Yeah, that would have been difficult.

SH:

And making sure that those skills are up to speed.

TS:

Well, I was going to ask you—now, so you are in—Were you in the training position or the immunization position when the Gulf War started?

SH:

By that time—By that time, I think I was still in the education part, in the training part.

TS:

Yeah. How did that affect you at all?

SH:

Well, with the Gulf War, air unit was not mobilized. It was not a requirement that we had to be. People could volunteer if they wanted to go to do anything. Our flying squadron, at that time, had just transferred to the A-10. They had not been through a readiness inspection, so they weren’t going anywhere. As far as [Operation] Desert Storm, we did not go over at all. I think some of the security police from our area went. We had certain groups that would go. And from our standpoint, from the medical standpoint, we had to research exactly what they needed medically before they went and make sure they had those requirements met. So we would end up having to come in and do maybe some additional time just to make sure that those things were done and we got them all taken care of. But that was about—That was really about it as far as for Desert Storm: a lot of us just sitting around feeling guilty that we weren’t going anywhere and doing anything. And sitting watching the TV going, “Is there anybody there that I recognize?” looking on TV.

TS:

Right.

SH:

During that time—Well, actually, during that time, even if we had been going, I wouldn’t have gone anywhere because my father had become very ill. And so I was spending a lot of time with him and watching the TV whenever I had a chance. So I wouldn’t have been going.

After Desert Storm, when we started Operation Southern Watch—and that was when we were doing all of those flying into the no-fly zones, making sure that the Iraqis were not coming into the zones that they weren’t supposed to be in—our entire wing took on about a three month stint of being the lead organization at [Ahmed] Al Jaber Air Base in Kuwait. And at that time, they were looking for basically a flight doc[tor] and two air med techs to go for each time, from our unit. And we didn’t have enough med techs that were qualified to go [chuckles] with their training. And my husband was going on one that was a thirty-day. They had two thirty-days and one that was maybe a little less than thirty days that we had to take care of.

And the pilots were all told, “You’re going on one of those. There is no choice. We have—We don’t have enough people otherwise to fill this, and we will meet this mission.” So my husband knew he had to go. He wasn’t real happy about it. By this time, he was flying commercially and he was, like, not really happy about this. And I’m sitting there going—I have three kids at this point in time. I’m sitting there going, “Well, I want to go.” [chuckles] “So why don’t you stay home and I’ll go?” And that wasn’t going to work with the pilots.

TS:

Can’t fly that plane.

SH:

I can’t fly that airplane. And they really didn’t want nurses. And I’m going, “But I can do that job too, you know. I can still do that.”

So I went and I talked to the wing commander, because it was going to be up to him as to whether or not I was going to be allowed to do this or not. And he was like, “Okay, fine. You can go.”

So we worked it out so that Dan went on one stint and then I went right after him. So I was home with the kids, and then his sister came up and kind of did the overflow, because you were like a half-dead person when you come back from over there. You can’t even think straight, just the difference in the time zones. But that was probably one of the most exciting things for me, was actually getting to go and do something.

TS:

Well, tell me about that.

SH:

We had—We left from Dover [England], and we had to go through the whole process of going through the lines and making sure you have this and all the different requirements met and all to get there. On the airplane—I think there were three females on the entire airplane, and it was a military flight. We were in our BDUs [battle dress uniform]. Most of us had gotten our desert BDUs by this time, but those who were not had their green BDUs on and stuck out like sore thumbs. So we were real happy to get the deserts. We flew—I believe we were supposed to fly to Aviano Air Base [Italy], refuel, and then fly on into Kuwait City. [Phone rings and answering machine picks up.]

TS:

Let’s pause for just a sec. That’ll pick up. Okay.

SH:

And then after we got to Aviano, I think it was—They told us that Greece had decided that they were not going to allow us to fly over. So we were going to be stuck in Aviano. And I remember the commander for the flight was—I cannot remember if he was a major or a lieutenant—I think he was a lieutenant colonel, and at that time, I was a lieutenant colonel. And when we got to Aviano, he goes, “I’ve decided that I am turning over command function to you for the evening.”

And I said, “Well, sir, I’m sorry, but you’re not allowed to do that, because the only people I can command is the physician and the air med tech.” [laughs] And he was very disappointed about the whole thing. But I said, “I’m sorry, but that’s the way it is.”

They put us—They had no place to really put us because they were just overloaded with all the different flights coming out of Kuwait and getting stuck—people being stuck and not being able to get on one way or another. So it was just like massive amounts of people on this base. We were put in the gym. The gym floor was covered with cots, and that’s where all the guys were. And there was a little balcony up above that was open, but it was a balcony up above and that’s where the ladies went. There were six of us up there. There were a couple of girls who had been stuck there for like a couple of weeks because they couldn’t get out on any flights.

And I just remember thinking, “This is just—I just want to go to sleep.” I had been on the airplane—I don’t even know how many hours. And we had been sitting on the runway; we were not even allowed to step foot on the tarmac. We had seen every movie that the airplane had to offer. We had eaten every bite of food. That’s all we were doing was eating. We had drank everything that was on the airplane. And it was just like it was good to be out. And everybody else was going—A lot of them were planning to go out on the town. You know, it’s our last night of freedom before we get to Kuwait. And I said, “I just want to go to bed.” [TS laughs] So I remember laying in the cot thinking, “How am I ever going to go to sleep?” It was like a roar coming up from the floor because all of the guys that were down there and everybody was snoring. [TS laughs]

So the next morning I remember getting up. And the other girls that were with me were enlisted, and they were a little intimidated because they really didn’t know me too well. And I remember I sat up on my cot and I looked at them and I said, “Well, girls, we have some exciting news to tell everybody when we get back.”

And they were like, “What?”

And I said, “You can just go back and tell them that this is the first time you ever spent the night with over a thousand men and it wasn’t that great.” [laughter] And it’s, like, you have to have a sense of humor about this whole thing.

So we go on to Kuwait and it was like, by the time we got there, everybody just wanted to get off and kiss the ground because we were finally on solid ground. We get into the—I think I saw my husband for about twenty minutes. And he got on the airplane that brought me in, and he went home to take care of the kids. And I went on to the base, got settled into the facility. I had the pleasure of actually getting to have a room in one of the dorms, and all the other medical personnel, that were male, actually had to sleep in the clinic area. And we set up our facility as to how we were going to run things. And the—there was a little bit of an overlap, which was good. So the people from air unit were still there for like another week, and then they were going out on a different flight, so they were able to just show us the ropes and tell us what we had to do and where things were.

It was definitely different. It was so hot. And when I got back, my husband was going, “You were there when it was cool.” [TS laughs] We were talking—I was seeing people coming in and they would have foot problems. And you would look at their boots—and they were flight line personnel—the soles of their boots were just worn out because they were walking on that hot pavement. It was like128 degrees out there on the pavement; it was just unreal. And most of the stuff was done at night. That was when people would get out and try to do something because you couldn’t stand being out during the day. Had huge liter bottles of water, they just went with you wherever you went. [chuckles] You just carried them with you. We had—one of the duties that we had as medics—The EOD [explosive ordinance disposal] guys, for some reason, in some areas, surrounding areas, they were not allowed to get rid of any of the old ammo that they found. And they were still finding ammunition and bombs, unexploded ordinances and all this stuff, all over this base. So we were told, “You walk where the pathway says you walk.”

TS:

Right.

SH:

“You do not step off.” And—But they had to take care of these things. And plus they had stuff that was brought in on aircraft that they were required to dispose of. So they had the pit, which was out sort of in the desert. And I found out that one of the medics was required to go out there with them when they exploded the stuff.

And the med tech that was with me, he was like, “I am really not excited about doing this.”

“I’ll go! I’ll go!”

TS:

I knew you were going to volunteer, Sandy. [laughter]

SH:

So I think at that time I had two physicians, so one of them went with me. And we went out and we got in the ambulance, and I just thought it was cool. I was like, you know, “I need to learn how to drive this thing.” And I was allowed to drive because I was a medic, a medical person. Otherwise, females were not allowed to drive off-base.

TS:

Ah.

SH:

And that was just part of the Kuwaiti culture. And that had changed, but didn’t really affect us at that point. After Kuwait was invaded by Iraq, they changed a lot of their ways that they dealt with females because the women really—they really, really stood up and took their proper roles when they were invaded by Iraq, and a lot of them are just basically heroes. They took care of their families. They did all kinds of just incredible things that they finally had to sit up and say, you know, “Okay, you want to drive a car by yourself? Go ahead. You can drive a car by yourself.” And they became a little more Westernized than, like, Saudi Arabia.

So we’d take off and we’d go out to the pit, and these guys are down there and they’re working with all this ammo that’s laid out in the pit. And they’re putting C4—just peeling off the back and sticking C4 on it. Nothing’s going to blow up until we go out there, until they attach everything. And when they started attaching things, we were told we had to move back a certain distance.

And I looked at one of the guys and I said, “Huh. I was really wondering why it was required to come out here. Am I supposed to be out here to pick up the pieces if you make a mistake?”

And he says, “Ma’am, we do not discuss that, okay?” [laughs]

So we would go out. And, of course, we wouldn’t take enough water with us and we’d have to partake of theirs. They were just—They were really super guys. And we did this on several occasions. And at one point we would be way off in the distance, and they would have everything set up electronically, and they’d just flip a switch and you’d see a little poof of smoke go up in the air, and in a couple seconds you’d hear the boom.

And I said, “That’s really neat.”

So the next time we went out and he’s setting it up and he’s getting ready, he says, “Would you like to come and push the button?”

“Yes, I would.” [TS laughs]

So I got to do that. And I thought, “Okay, that’s exciting.” And then at one point we went out and they had a lot of ammo to get rid of, just rows and rows of it. And they’re slapping C4 on. And I’m like, “Is there anything we can do to help?”

“Well, here, you can put some of this stuff on if you want. This is how you do it.”

So we’re down in the trenches with them and we’re putting C4 on all this stuff. And this was right before I came back to the States, and I had to wear my BDUs back home on the plane. And I thought about that afterwards. When I got to the airport I was like, “I hope I washed all that stuff off of this uniform.”

TS:

All the C4 off.

SH:

“I’m going to have some dog alerting on me because I have C4 on my uniform.”

TS:

Right.

SH:

But it was—it was definitely—That was an exciting time. And we had, of course, the bigwigs who came out to see how everything was going. And this was something they had never done before. They had never taken an Air Guard unit and put it in charge of a base like this, because we had active duty personnel from Hill Air Force Base, had F-16s there. They were not in charge. They fell under the Guard commander. And some of them sort of weren’t quite sure how they were supposed to deal with that. So of course, everybody wanted to come and see how we were doing and how we were blending and was it working. And at one point when we were out at the pit, air protocol officer—

And to this day I don’t know how that man ever kept his uniform perfectly ironed. He looked starched and you just didn’t do that to a BDU uniform. We were lucky to just get them washed and thrown back on. But he looked perfect. Every seam, his hat was perfectly pressed, he was just a poster child, you know, for the air force.

He comes out to bring some—I think it was a general, a couple of generals and colonels, out to see what we were doing. And he got stuck. He couldn’t get his vehicle out because the sand where we were was really deep. And one of the physicians was out there with me at the time, and he just kind of starts laughing because he had gotten to know me by this time. And he comes over to me and he goes, “Do you think you could go over and show him how to put the four wheel drive on his vehicle?” [TS laughs]

And I looked at him and I said, “Do you really want me to do that?”

And he goes, “Yeah, I think it would be really nice of you.”

So I go over and I said, “Are you having a problem?”

“Well, they sent me this vehicle and they didn’t show me how to do the four wheel drive.”

“Oh, here’s how you do it.” And I just reached down and turned a couple of knobs on the wheels and I said, “You should have no problem getting out now.” [chuckles]

He was just like, “I can’t believe I let a nurse do this to me.” [TS laughs] But it was just—That was just kind of one of those little glory hog things, you know, that you’re just happy to see.

But it was—that was just a really exciting thing: to get to actually go in and do things and be a part of it and just see the history. There were places that we could not go on that base because they were booby-trapped. The Kuwait Air Force Academy was there. And I never—To this day, I do not know what ever happened to that building. It was so booby-trapped that the Kuwaitis would not even go in, not even go in at all. We actually went to a museum that they had set up, and the walls were just covered—The entire wall around the whole building was covered with pictures of people who had disappeared and were still missing when Iraq invaded. And we actually got to go into houses and see still bullet holes on the walls and splashes of blood that had dried still on the walls from when they had been invaded. And they were just so very thankful to have the Americans there, at this point in time, because they felt like that was their security, because Iraq was still looming on the horizon to them and still very much a threat, because Saddam Hussein still wanted to take control of Kuwait. So it was—it was a really different experience—really, really different experience.

And we had our little fun patients who came in. Like the one guy came in, and I walked in one morning, and he’s sitting there on the gurney and he’s got IVs going. And I’m like, “Gee, what happened to you?”

And the physician and the med tech were there. And he was like, “I just got really dehydrated and got really, really sick, you know, from the food.”

And I’m like, “From food?” And I thought, “Couldn’t be food from our facility because we take care of that.” You know, we know what we’re eating; we go in and inspect them. And so I was a little concerned.

He was like—the med tech was like, “Keep going, you know. Tell her what happened.”

He was one of the weather guys, and he could not leave his post to come in to eat. He had not had any relief at all. He could not leave his post to come in to eat, so he had gone into one of the bunkers and found MREs [meal, ready-to-eat] that were there. Well, these MREs had been there for months, were outdated, and had been in a 128 eight plus degrees temperature. So they were not any good, and he had eaten them and gotten sick.

I looked at him initially and I said—He hadn’t told me initially what his job was. And I said, “What is your job that you don’t get relief at all to even come in and eat?”

And he goes, “I’m the weather man!”

And I just burst out laughing because we had not had a cloud in the sky the whole time I had been there. And I said, “Tell me you’re waiting for a cloud to come over and you’re going to report it.”

He kind of turned a little bit red, [laughter] and that was the end of the story. But we were constantly getting people in with sand in their eyes and corneal abrasions. And I had one gentleman who decided—Everybody did their exercising and running, this sort of thing, at night. And I had one gentleman come in, I guess it was right after dinner, when things were beginning to cool off a little bit.

And we had the best ice cream in Kuwait. I went to Kuwait thinking I was going to lose a few pounds: no way, no way. We had the—The gentleman who was over the dining facility was from Pakistan. And all of the guys that worked for him were third world nationals. And I believe they were called—The military people lovingly called them “little blue dudes,” at that time, because they wore these blue uniforms. The minute they would see me walking in, they would start piling food on the tray because I was one of the few females that were there. And they also knew that I came in and inspected them [laughter] to see what they were doing and if they were doing proper food preparation.

TS:

So they took care of you, huh?

SH:

They just piled the food on. And I said, “Look, I know maybe you like your women to look healthy. I don’t need to gain any more weight, so let’s just cut that down a little bit.” But the ice cream was just incredible that they had brought in. It was some type of Dutch ice cream and it was just wonderful. I’m sitting there one night, I had just gotten my big bowl of ice cream, and our walkie-talkie goes off, radio goes off, and there’s somebody coming into the clinic, and somebody needs to come up and check them out.

So the med tech goes, “I’ll go. You just stay here, finish your meal.” He says, “I’ll call you if I need to do—if you need to come do anything.” And our two physicians at that time had disappeared somewhere. We had no idea where they were. And the—He calls me and he goes, “You probably need to come up here. I think he’s going to need stitches.” He had somehow fallen into concertina barbed wire, and it looked like someone had taken about four or five knives and sliced across his forearm very clean, not jagged, cuts. And he’s sitting there and he’s being very brave.

And I thought, “That has to hurt.”

TS:

No kidding.

SH:

He’s being very brave and he’s like, “It’s okay. I know you can just go ahead and stitch me up.”

And I said, “Well, I’ve never really done sutures on a live person. I mean, I’ve sutured up chicken when we went through class, but that’s been about it.”

“It’s okay. I’ve had so many stitches, I’ll help you out. You can go ahead and do it.”

And I said, “Are you sure, because we can wait for the physicians to get back or I can send you in—we can take you in to the Kuwait hospital?”

“Oh, no, no. You go ahead and do it.”

So I put about thirty-three stitches into this guy.

TS:

Oh, wow.

SH:

And I thought, “Oh, my gosh.” My back was breaking, I was sweating bullets, I was just like—This is just horrendous. And the next morning—I made him come back the next morning so he could see the physicians. I said, “And I know you’re going to need antibiotics, and I don’t know what to give you, so you’re going to come back.”

He came back, the docs saw him, and they said, “Actually, you did a really good job. Looks fine to us.” They gave him an antibiotic, told him when to come back to get the sutures out. We never saw him in the clinic again.

Later on, before I left, I saw him out and I said, “How did you get those sutures out?”

“Oh, I just took them out myself. I’ve done—I’ve had stitches so many times I could have probably put them in.” [chuckling]

So that was an experience that I had never had before.

TS:

Wow, interesting, yeah.

SH:

And would never have had as a civilian nurse. Not allowed to do that kind of thing as a civilian nurse.

TS:

That’s right.

SH:

It was—The way I looked at it, it was war. [chuckling] The closest I was going to get.

TS:

That’s cool that you got to suture somebody up. Well, you had a—so then you stayed in another—let’s see, ninety—another about ten years or so? And you worked in the Guard. Did anything change over that period of time?

SH:

Well, I became the chief nurse. The officer who was our chief nurse had—I had sort of stopped doing a lot of the professional military education at that point in time. I had three children, a husband who worked for the airlines and was also in the Guard, so our lives were just constantly busy. And every time I would try to do those correspondence courses, it was just, like, not going to happen. So the nurse who was above me, who was the chief nurse, she had done all of her PME [professional military education] and was really looking at what she could do to try to get promoted. So she decided to—I told her she jumped ship—and went to the other side, to the line side, and became the squadron commander of the supply squadron, which left open the chief nurse slot. So I moved into the chief nurse slot and we started recruiting nurses to come in and fill the slot that was available. And I did that for a period of time. And during that time, we did a lot of medical readiness training. We would go to Alpena, Michigan, every two to three years.

TS:

I know exactly where that’s at.

SH:

Yes. And I loved it up there. It was just—the first trip we went up there, I think I was—I was still the training officer. It was the very first time that our unit went, so we had  a little group who went up for our pre-deployment so we could come back and know for sure what we needed to take and what to expect when we got there. I remember sitting there talking to Colonel Adams[?], who was the commander of all of the medical readiness training.

I knew I was pregnant and I thought, “They are not going to let me come up here and do this, being pregnant. But since I’m here now, maybe he’ll be a good guy and he’ll let me do it.” And so I asked the question. We had gone through this because I was real excited about the training. It was really going to be good hands-on “this is what it’s really going to be like” type of training for us, especially for the mission that we now had.

So I had to ask him, “Now, what about pregnant women?”

He goes, “I knew you were going to ask that question because you probably are, and no, you can’t go.” [laughter] So I didn’t get to go on the first initial one with everybody else, but I heard all of the horror stories that they—things that they—pranks that they pulled on each other and the way it was. And they were there in the dead of winter. They had snow on the ground. They had the snow boots—

TS:

Is this Wurtsmith Air Force Base? Is that Alpena?

SH:

I think it is.

TS:

I think so.

SH:

It’s out on the little—

TS:

Yeah.

SH:

Like what is it, the hand and it’s—

TS:

Yeah, right.

SH:

—the thumb.

TS:

[chuckling] Right here. Yeah.

SH:

And it was just set up so that we went into the classroom for a week, and then we went out and we deployed into the field for a week. They ran exercises for us. We had to do a night compass course, and when I did it that was just incredible, that whole scene. You just—You would not hear a sound until somebody would hit a tripwire. Because they would put tripwires out, and if we got off-track and you hit the tripwire—We had worked so hard to get our eyes accustomed to being able to see in the dark, and I never knew you could do that. So we’re seeing where we’re going. It’s pitch dark, but we’re able to see. And somebody would hit a tripwire and a flare would go off, and the language you would hear after that was not very good. [laughter] But it was something that we all had to do. And it was just—to me, it was exciting. Yes, we had to do it and it was something we had to pass and show that we knew what we were doing, but it was still fun, too.

And then going out to the field and setting up the facility, we had to set up the ATH [air transportable hospital] and get all of the equipment out there out of the warehouse.  And they would run mass casualty exercises for us. They would have people come in; they weren’t using air people, they were bringing people in to be patients. And they would be all moulaged up; they looked like the real deal. And we would do this for almost an entire week. They would attack us in the middle of the night. I can remember somebody running over me, literally, in the tent, because we were being attacked [laughs] and having to fight back. It was—it was—I sort of looked at it as: some of this is just little boys who want to play war, and they were having fun with it, but they were also learning what it was really going to be like, at that point in time, how we—so we thought. A couple of times after that, once they got the training solidified and we’d been through it a couple of times, then we started going up and meshing with other units and going through the training. That was always exciting, you know, getting to do that and meet different people.

And you always had your down time and fun and we would have the weekend. At one point we were stuck there for a weekend because our flight wasn’t coming in until, like, Monday. So we all hopped in a van and took off up to Mackinaw Island.

TS:

Mackinaw Island, yeah.

SH:

We got to see that. It was just—It was a really good time for all of us. You really got to know people, even from other units. And then when we would go to the AMSUS convention in San Antonio, we would plan a reunion. So that was good.

TS:

Well, did you think that when you joined up in the air force, because they only had two weeks of training [laughs]—

SH:

Oh, I know.

TS:

—that you would have this experience—

SH:

No.

TS:

—where you ended up retiring?

SH:

No. Never would have. And then it was like—after—well, I was getting ready—I had already made up my mind that I’d had enough and that twenty years was going to be it. And I was a lieutenant colonel, I was the chief nurse of the unit—or the chief nurse of the medical squadron, and I thought, “You know what, that’s it. I’m done. I’m retiring in two more years or another year and that’s it. I’ll have twenty years in and that’s good.” And my husband was approaching twenty, too, and he was a lieutenant colonel. He was going to retire soon, was talking about it. And I thought, “You know, that’ll be good, and we can get on with our lives.”

Then lo and behold, there was this massive exodus of people from our wing. Our medical squadron commander—At that point in time we were a medical group. Our group commander had decided that he was retiring. There were no physicians qualified to take his place because that seemed to be the way that the Guard always looked at it. Especially where I was, in our unit, was that it always had to be a flight surgeon who was the medical squadron commander. Well, they didn’t have anybody who was qualified, so we started looking.

And a couple—our admin officer, our full-time health tech, a couple people, kept saying, “You need to apply for that job.”

And I said, “I don’t want that job. I do not want that job. I’m putting in my twenty years. I am done, just go away.”

And they kept looking for people and looking for people, and—to make a long story short, they didn’t find any physicians, because at that point in time somebody would have to literally almost move into the area and set up practice, and you’re just not going to find docs who are going to be willing to do that, just to be the commander of a medical squadron, a part-time position.

So I ended up—I said, “Okay, fine. I’ll go interview, but I don’t think I’m going to get it.” So I went and I interviewed and I got the job. And then my husband looked at me, and I kind of looked at him and I said, “I’m sorry!” [laughter]

I said, “Oh, I can do this job until I leave.” And I thought because I did not have the PME [professional military education]—The commander position was full colonel and I was lieutenant colonel. I even said to the wing commander, “I don’t have the PME to be promoted to full colonel.”

And he said, “You are a nurse. At this point in time, you don’t need to have that to be promoted. And you need is to be full colonel to be in that position, to have the clout you need to do your job.”

And I’m like, “You would be creating a monster. I was going to tell you.”

“That’s okay. That’s what we need to do.”

So at that point, my husband’s—and once I knew, once I was promoted to full colonel, I had to stay in that rank for three years to retire with it. And they knew that, too, so they knew they had me for another three years. My husband ended up retiring. He said, “This is going to be much easier. I’m ready to retire. I’ll just retire. You go ahead and do your thing.”

TS:

So he retired as a light colonel, and you’re the colonel?

SH:

Yes.

TS:

You finally outranked him, huh?

SH:

Actually, I outranked him almost our entire—

TS:

Oh, yeah?

SH:

—military career.

TS:

By time in service?

SH:

Because when he came into the—When he came into Sheppard, he was a second lieutenant. He had to wait two years to get promoted to first lieutenant.

TS:

I see.

SH:

So—

TS:

So you were just a little—

SH:

I was always—And that’s why I kind of looked at him and said, “I’m sorry. I kind of promised you I wouldn’t do this to you again.” [TS laughs] So it was—And he’s really good about it. He was really good about it. Like, “No. No, I don’t have to salute her at home,” you know, all that stuff because he’d get teased about it.

TS:

Sure. Well, that’s terrific. What a great promotion.

SH:

Yeah, it was good. In our unit, we went through our first health services inspection, and we ended up getting an “excellent”—the first time the unit had ever gotten that. It was just—that was really—To me, that was worth it—

TS:

Sure.

SH:

—to get them through that to do that. And, you know, a lot of people were asking me, “How come you could do it and others before you couldn’t do it?”

And I said, “Because nurses are organized. Nurses run nursing units. We have to organize and prioritize what we do at our job. Physicians hire office managers.” [laughter]

TS:

They’re not the organized ones. Right.

SH:

You know, that’s just it in a nutshell. That’s the only way that I could figure out, because we have really good commanders. Some of the physicians were really good commanders. We had some that were not so great, but we had some that were really good. But organization was not really what I considered to be any of their strong points—the ones that I worked with, anyway.

TS:

So tell us when you finally got out.

SH:

We had decided that—I knew I was getting ready to retire. And we had the three children at the time: my oldest was a freshman in high school, and I had one in fourth grade and one in second grade. And we had lived in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania, for almost thirteen years.

And every time a big snow would come in—and we had—We were in town. I had no front yard; we were right down to the street. We were not exactly in—The neighborhood was really kind of going not so hot. It was a lot of drug issues and stuff. And we’re reading this in the paper and I’m, like, going, “I don’t really like this.” And we were on one of those long sidewalk areas. Well, the requirement was: when it snowed, you had to clean your sidewalk off. Well, we also had on-street parking, so I had to dig out. And every time that would happen, my husband would take off to the airport. I said, “This is not fair.” [laughs] In fact, one time he was home when this happened and had to shovel snow, and one of the neighbors said, “Where’s your wife?” [laughter]

And I said, “You know, it’s dreary.” We don’t have very long summers. And we really were enjoying outdoor activities with the kids. Yeah, we’d take them—They were all skiing by this time. We would go to Blue Mountain and go skiing and go up into the Poconos, and we’d even take them up to Killington [Vermont] and Stowe [Vermont]. The kids were just real troopers. They were good skiers, so we were enjoying that.

But in summer, it’s like we really never had a long enough summer for us. And we just decided—I said, “You know, I’m really tired of shoveling snow. I don’t want to grow old having to shovel out a spot to park my car.” And we had liked the climate in North Carolina, even though we knew we were not going back to Fayetteville.

So we came down to visit my mom over Christmas. With the oldest son we decided—looked at a map and decided, “This is where we’re going to go.” We ended up finding this place, fell in love with it, bought the lot, started making plans to sell our house there. In the meantime, I’m still doing my weekend deal. And I’m already decided; I’m counting down the months as to when I’m going to retire. We actually moved to Asheboro [North Carolina] in 2000. [It] took them a year to build this house. So in August of—

And I commuted back and forth for drill weekends, which was really tough, being the commander, because there was so much stuff that I need to get done. So I would go up on a Thursday or a Friday and not come back down here until late Tuesday. So I could have that extra time to just get stuff done. And I said, “This is really getting old, guys. You really need to start looking at the fact that I’m going to retire.”

So I finally made the decision to do it and put my paperwork in, and they started looking for a new commander. And I said, “I know exactly who you need to get: our dentist!” [laughs] And the good thing was I was able to sort of bring a couple of guys along. And when I first got the job as the commander, the admin officer was a major at the time, and he had come to us from the army. The army unit—medical unit he was with had disbanded, and there was not another one there. And we’d been really trying to get this guy for a long time because we knew him. His father had actually been in our Guard unit. So we knew him and they had really been trying to recruit him for a long time. And he was just a breath of fresh air. I mean, he was—I learned so much from him. And when I had to go to the commander’s school—the Guard ran a commander’s school for all brand new commanders. They didn’t require it, but it was highly encouraged that you go so you could learn how to stay out of trouble.

And I looked at him and I said, “Major Quinn, you get your TDY bags ready because you’re going to school with me.” [TS laughs]

And he’s like, “Why?”

And I said, “Because you were one of the ones who got me into this mess, and you’re going to learn how to keep me out of trouble.” So he went and he is now—The dentist retired, I guess, a little over a year ago or so. And he is now the commander of that unit. And I told him from the get-go, I said, “You will be the commander of this unit someday. You will be.” And the unit has expanded—I don’t keep in touch with a lot of them, but occasionally, you know, Christmas cards and that sort of thing or I’ll give them a call and say, “You know, what’s going on?” They’ve expanded so much at this point. It’s really been good.

TS:

Well, the date that you retired—Your official retirement date is kind of ironic, in the timing of it.

SH:

Yes.

TS:

You want to say when that was?

SH:

August of 2001. One month before 9/11. And that was really gut-wrenching for me because at that point we had no idea what was happening, what was going on. I remember getting on the phone and calling back to the full-time technician and saying, “What is happening?”

“Well, we’re on high alert, but we haven’t heard anything else yet.”

TS:

So not having your fingers in it, after having your fingers in it for so long, must have been really difficult.

SH:

It was hard. It was really, really hard. Really difficult. It was especially difficult, too, because at the time I was just getting ready to turn the TV off.  And I guess it was—I don’t know where I was going. But I had been sitting here watching Good Morning America, and it was almost nine o’clock and I thought, “Oh, I’m just going to turn it off. I don’t need to see the end of this. Go get a shower and do whatever I’m going to do for the day.” And about that time it came on the TV. And I sat there for the next several hours with my phone in hand because my husband had been taking off from—I can’t remember if he was—

TS:

Oh, right. He was still flying.

SH:

—I don’t remember—I don’t think he was in New York, but he was flying a FedEx flight, and I knew he was going to be in the air that morning. And I was—I didn’t know [unclear].

TS:

Sure, nobody knew what was going on.

SH:

And I’m looking at the airplane that’s going in and thinking—what—and there’s the kind of—The type of airplane they were saying it was was the type of airplane he was flying at the time.

TS:

I see.

SH:

It was just gut-wrenching until he got on the ground. And we’ve always had that unwritten—It’s just an unwritten rule that when something like this happens, the minute you get to a phone, you call.

TS:

Check in, yeah.

SH:

And that was even true when we were over in England. If word got out that an A-10 had crashed—and we did have that happen on several occasions there—the deal was: you better get to that phone and call me. And that happened one time—was someone not in our squadron but another squadron, and my charge nurse called me at home. And I didn’t know this had happened. I hadn’t heard anything from Dan. He had class that night. He was taking a master’s course, so he was staying down and was in class. And he had not had an opportunity to get out of class and call me. And I’m sitting there going—and she’s like, “Do you know who that was that crashed down there?”

And I just, like, my stomach just fell.

TS:

Oh, no. Oh, my gosh.

SH:

And so as soon as he called, I was just like, “Whew, okay.” And she really felt bad because she knew we had that rule, so she figured, “Oh, well, Dan’s called her and she knows what’s going on.” And that’s why she called me, and she really felt so bad afterwards.

TS:

Oh, my goodness. Well, now, since you’ve been out, the roles that women have played in the military has expanded, right? We have women flying jets, fighter jets, and things like that. What do you think about that?

SH:

I think it’s about time. [laughs] I really do. And I know my husband went to the Air Force Academy, and he was there the first year that women were allowed.

TS:

Seventy-six?

SH:

And that was a real stickler for him. He was just—really had a hard time. And I’m like, you know, “Bite your tongue. You’ve married a somewhat liberated woman who feels that women have certain roles that they can fulfill in the military, and why should you keep them down?” So he stopped that right away. [chuckling] But I think—I think it’s good. I don’t think—I think we’ve seen enough of it already at this point. I know the thinking used to be that you never put a woman in a combat situation because if they were ever taken prisoner of war, horrible things could be done to them. Well, let’s face it: horrible things get done to the guys just as much as it would to the women. And some of those women are very, very strong. I think women just have—If a woman wants to be in a role, wants to be in a position like that, I think they should be allowed to do it and to give it their best, to give it their best shot and see if they can do it. I firmly agree with that.

TS:

Well, this other question you’ve kind of answered along the way, about how your life has been different because of, you know, your choice and decision to go in the military. Is there any way you want to sum that up?

SH:

I don’t think I’d be sitting here in this house. I wouldn’t be—I wouldn’t be the person that I am at all. I was a meek little mild, naïve, quiet—people from my high school days who meet me are like—they just stand back and they go, “Whoa! You were nothing like this in high school.”

And I’m like, “I know. I actually have a mouth. I have an opinion, and I can state it now.”

And back then I couldn’t do that. It’s really—It’s changed me. I think it has brought out—I would like to think that it’s brought out a lot of good things about me. It’s probably brought out some things that are not so good, too. But hopefully the good outweighs the bad. But it’s really made me who I am. It really has. The military has been such a big part of my life, and I think it always will be. It always will be. We still—I still—We still keep in touch with people that we were in service with.

TS:

Yeah, you’ve said that all along, each stage of the way.

SH:

And, you know, those folks are our family. They’re our family, too. It’s like you just have this big extended family out there, and you know you can always find somebody to support you doing something if you need it.

TS:

Well, is there anything that we haven’t talked about that you wanted to discuss?

SH:

Well, I can tell you a little bit about my children, my three kids. I have an eighteen year old who’s graduating from high school in a couple of days—has no clue what he wants to do. [He] probably should go in the military at some point. [chuckles] And my daughter is at Elon [University]. She wants nothing to do with the military. My kids had to go through all of this with Mom and Dad being gone, and I guess they kind of—not exactly—

TS:

Had enough of the military as children.

SH:

Yeah, they sort of had enough of it. And but she is an upcoming junior at Elon and doing really well. She’s—But she is in international studies, so the travel bug has hit every one of my kids.

TS:

Oh, I see.

SH:

She’s doing study abroad in London.

TS:

And this is Jacqueline, right?

SH:

Yes. In the spring next year, so she’s real excited about that. And my oldest is twenty-five, and he is a pilot for—right now for Piedmont Airlines. So he does the little, what I call puddle-jumping, stuff. And he is actually contemplating looking at the Reserves of the Guard.

TS:

Oh, how about that.

SH:

He’s thinking about it.

TS:

Keep it in the tradition of the family.

SH:

He really wanted to go to the Air Force Academy, but unfortunately for him, he has my vision, which is not really good. And as far as the physical went, I said, “You could go to the Air Force Academy. You might get in.” And he did try. His SAT—just couldn’t get his SAT scores up high enough. He got nominated by a congressman and everything. He just couldn’t get competitive with his SATs. [He is] just not a test-taker—a good student, just not a good test-taker. And so he did not get accepted at the Air Force Academy, and he went to Embry Riddle [Aeronautical University] and decided he wanted to fly. and he says “If I can’t fly fighters, okay, I’ll fly other planes.” And he loves it. He really does. And he’s actually looking at something along the lines of cargo, if he does get into the Air Force. [unclear]

TS:

That’s terrific.

SH:

So he’s thinking about it. He just kind of hasn’t really jumped the gun. With the economy, his rationale is that, “At least I would have a job doing something.” [laughter]

TS:

Yeah. Well, that’s not a bad idea these days.

SH:

That’s not a bad idea. And he’s another travel hound. He just goes wherever he wants to go, and I think he looks at the military as also being a way to help him do that, too.

TS:

Excellent.

SH:

So we’ve kind of passed some of it down, anyway. [laughter]

TS:

Well, I’ve really enjoyed talking with you today.

SH:

Thank you.

TS:

So thank you. Had a wonderful career and—we’ll go ahead and talk about—I’ll shut it off, but we’ll look at some of these pictures and see what we can do.

SH:

Okay.

TS:

So thank you, Sandy, very much.

SH:

You’re welcome. You’re welcome.

TS:

Appreciate it.

[End of interview]