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Memories Of Service

Photo by Emma Delk
Retired Air Force Nurse Corps Colonel Judith Sanders poses in front of a framed display featuring the accolades she received during her service alongside medallions from each command she was stationed.

Serving on the frontline of care for soldiers during the Vietnam War, Air Force Nurse Corps Col. Judith Sanders and Navy Nurse Corps Lt. Commander Marie L. Pinto reflected on their time spent as nurses in the military.

After graduating from the now-defunct Wheeling Hospital School of Nursing, Sanders bounced from hospital to hospital in Wheeling. She described herself as “unable to find her niche” in the nursing field.

Aspirations to explore a medical career beyond what was available to her in Wheeling began to form.

“I was reading too many journals and realizing there was so much going on everywhere except Wheeling,” said Sanders. “I guess I just needed some excitement in my life or something.”

When the Tet Offensive hit in January 1968, Sanders found the excitement she craved. Due to this major escalation of the Vietnam War, the U.S. military began calling for more nurses to join the war effort. It was a no-brainer for Sanders to take the plunge and become an Air Force nurse.

Military nursing aspirations bloomed earlier for Pinto, who was inspired to join by her brother’s service in the Navy during World War II.

After high school, Pinto headed to the Wheeling Hospital School of Nursing and then Duquesne University. While getting her bachelor’s degree in nursing, she was encouraged by several nurses involved in the Korean War to join the Navy.

“Those nurses were very encouraging, and I always knew I wanted to join, which made the decision even easier,” noted Pinto.

Pinto’s family also encouraged the decision, and she left Wheeling to join the Navy Nurse Corps in Dec. 1955.

Sanders, on the other hand, received some pushback regarding her decision to serve.

“My mother didn’t want me to go in the first place because my brother was in Vietnam,” said Sanders. “But when my brother came home, I felt the call and signed up.”

What was a spur-of-the-moment decision for Sanders launched a career spanning 24 years and 9 months. She found both the independence she craved in the nursing field and freedom within her own life while serving.

“The military was a place where I had autonomy, and that’s what I was looking for at the beginning of my career in the early ’60s,” described Sanders. “I wanted someplace where I could take care of patients and be spontaneous while looking after them, and the military had that.”

The spontaneity of the job did not come from the work Sanders did, as for her, “nursing is nursing every place you go.” Instead, the excitement stemmed from the different environments she worked in.

Concurring that the nursing she performed was “definitely what she expected,” Pinto also enjoyed the travel that came with the job. She described the nurses at each military base filling out a “dream sheet” every year with the next locations they wanted to travel to.

“I was fortunate because I always got the assignment I wanted, always,” said Pinto. “I know some weren’t so fortunate.”

Dream locations for Pinto included Guam, Japan, Italy, Oakland, California, Massachusetts and Florida. Noting that each duty station had “something unique to add to it,” the memories Pinto formed with fellow nurses and soldiers while on military bases are moments she reminiscences on daily

A Christmas party in Guam with fellow nurses and Navy pilots was a highlight for Pinto, who recalled spending the night out of her typical white uniform in a “gorgeous, lovely dress.”

Viewing an air show from the Blue Angels, a group of Navy stunt pilots, during a visit to the Miramar Air Base was another memory Pinto will cherish.

“The Blue Angels were just top-notch with their stunts,” described Pinto. “It was a lot of fun to get to see that.”

Guam, Taiwan, Thailand, Greece, Maine and South Dakota were notable stops in Sanders’ military career. With each location switch, Sanders had to adjust to more than just climate changes, as every new command required an adaptation in her nursing abilities.

When stationed in Guam, Sanders described working in a clinic with only one other nurse. While in Greece, Sanders worked in a holding facility with seven beds that housed air evacuations from the Vietnam War.

“Greece turned into a catastrophe when Bobby’s Bar in Athens got bombed, and then the Embassy got bombed,” said Sanders. “We had an influx of patients, and for a weekend, it was crazy. But it’s just the way we do business in the military.”

A station that encapsulated Sanders’ unique military nursing experience was her year-long stint as a flight nurse during the Vietnam War.

An average day on the job for Sanders was departing in a C-140 jet from the U.S., stopping in Subic Bay, Philippines, to pick up equipment and landing in Clark, Philippines. From there, the crew would pick up soldiers who had been stabilized for at least 30 days and transport them back to friends and family in the States.

“The soldiers had to be stable because it was another 14-hour trip across the water to get back home,” explained Sanders. “We had to fly at a lower altitude on the way back because some patients had health conditions that could be compromised if we went any higher.”

Describing the experience as “eye-opening,” Sanders recalled climbing ladders to access four different levels of patient beds in the plane.

“We put the ones that didn’t have IVs on top because all they needed was just a place to lay,” added Sanders. “The sickest ones were on the bottom, and we just tried to keep them stable.”

A jet would contain 12 to 18 patients that two nurses and three technicians would manage for an 18-hour shift. Sanders specified this as a much greater disparity in the ratio of patients to nurses than typically found in a hospital.

“That was emergency nursing at its highest level, no pun intended,” she joked. “It wasn’t easy, but when all was said and done, it was good to have done it.”

Sanders’s flight duties included hanging IVs, checking oxygen and distributing respiratory therapy and pain medication. Keeping patients “stable enough to make it through the trip” was her goal.

“It was a very unique way of doing nursing care,” noted Sanders. “It wasn’t difficult, but it was very strenuous, mainly because of all the activity you had to do to get to your patients.”

As an operating room instructor during the Vietnam War, Pinto did the recovery work patients would have undergone before heading into the sky with Sanders.

“We saw a lot of Marines because we were the first place they would visit after being hurt,” said Pinto. “The operating room was where we’d meet them because their injuries were usually so extensive.”

On whether she got nervous during a surgery, Pinto joked, “All I had to do was hand the doctor the tools. It wasn’t too bad for me.”

Once serious injuries had been treated, Pinto’s duties included daily check-ups of the marines and dressing their wounds while they were in recovery. This was her favorite part of the job, as she found it “wonderful to see them get better and better every day.”

Thinking it was “about time to wrap up” her military career in 1976 after 20 years of service, Pinto continued to work as a nurse in Wheeling for seven more years until her retirement.

Deciding to enter the force during an effort to increase the number of nurses, Sanders left the military during a Reduction in Force. The RIF was issued by the U.S. military in 1990, with Sanders not retiring until 1993 to help ease the transition for those replacing her.

Now 86 and 97, respectively, Sanders and Pinto reflect on the decades spent serving their country.

Noting her time in the Navy made her a “more compassionate and understanding person,’ Pinto believes treating people from “all walks of life” made a large impact on who she was as a person.

For Sanders, the military gave her the independence she craved as a young nurse in Wheeling.

“Way back before I joined, I was looking for autonomy, and the military gave me that,” she noted. “I still have that sense of autonomy today.”

Describing her experience in the service as “something you just don’t toss away,” Sanders noted the dedication of everyone she worked with.

“The military has you 23 hours a day,” she explained. “When somebody says you have to be there at 3 o’clock in the morning, you were there.

You might not have a smile on your face, but you were there.”

The staff she worked with was the highlight of the experience for Pinto, as while there were a few male nurses she worked alongside, she found the camaraderie and friendships she built with the female nurses to be her favorite part.

Still keeping in touch with two to four people from every base she’s worked at, Sanders added, “Despite living all over the country, we still stay connected.

“There’s just a camaraderie there that you can’t find anyplace else in the world.”

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