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From Just Cause to Iraqi Freedom: Nurse recounts time through three wars

A U.S. Air Force C-130 Hercules transport aircraft takes off from a landing strip in Panama during Operation JUST CAUSE (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Ken Hammond)

A U.S. Air Force C-130 Hercules transport aircraft takes off from a landing strip in Panama during Operation JUST CAUSE (U.S. Air Force photo by Master Sgt. Ken Hammond)

In 2003, Col. Carol Vermillion (left) with reporter Diane Sawyer of ABC News, in front of an Army Combat Support Hospital in Kuwait. (Courtesy photo)

In 2003, Col. Carol Vermillion (left) with reporter Diane Sawyer of ABC News, in front of an Army Combat Support Hospital in Kuwait. (Courtesy photo)

FALLS CHURCH, Va. -- U.S. Air Force Capt. Carol Vermillion felt no fear while flying to Panama in December 1989 as part of Operation Just Cause, the first of three conflicts where she served as a nurse.

“I was more excited and anxious,” recalled Vermillion, who retired as a colonel. “I felt more a part of the Air Force.”

The daughter of an Air Force master sergeant and a nurse, Vermillion earned her commission in 1980 after graduating from nursing school at Idaho State University. She served as a nurse at stateside and overseas Air Force bases, then joined the 1st Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron at Pope Air Force Base in Fayetteville, N.C. There, she served as a flight nurse and team member for a Mobile Aeromedical Staging Facility, an air-transportable holding facility that prepared patients for flight.

In Panama, Vermillion reached Howard AFB, near Balboa, Panama as the fighting continued. A MASF had already been assembled on the flight line, so her primary task was to help prepare wounded service members for flights to Wilford Hall Medical Center in San Antonio, Texas. Her work in Panama lasted eight months before she received orders to redeploy.

“I was out there doing my job as a big part of that Air Force mission,” Vermillion said about her time in Panama. The deployment was the type of mission she was hoping for when she decided to go into the Air Force, Vermillion said.

The next call came again in August 1990 when Iraq invaded Kuwait. Vermillion, now a major, flew to Saudi Arabia as part of Operation Desert Shield. Her MASF team from Panama stayed mostly intact. Since the team had already worked together, it made the deployment easier and helped with mission execution, she said.

Despite great team cohesion, the deployment had a rough beginning. The team arrived at King Abdulaziz Air Base in Dharhan at night, and exited their C-5 Galaxy to moderate temperatures. Vermillion remembers thinking the weather was not as bad as others had said. But by morning, temperatures soared as Vermillion and her team setup the MASF.

“It was wicked hot,” Vermillion said. Despite the temperatures, the team completed setup of the facility only to have part of it blown away by the engines of a nearby C-141. Unfazed by the setback, the team went back to work.

The deployment in support of Operation Desert Shield allowed Vermillion’s 23-member team to train with the U.S. Army and improve joint operations. Connecting with the Army also gave Vermillion’s Air Force team members some perspective on wartime conditions and contentment. Some Soldiers slept in lean-tos, ate mostly MREs, and often lacked showers.

“The Army had nothing, yet they seemed quite happy,” she recalled. Meanwhile, Vermillion’s team lived in tents with access to hot meals and showers. Vermillion told her team not to complain about their living conditions.

In January 1991, as combat operations for Desert Storm neared, Vermillion and her team departed for Saudi Arabia’s Rhafa region. They set up on an airstrip lined with A-10 “Warthog” Thunderbolt IIs, and Sikorsky MH-53 Pave Low helicopters used by American and British Special Operations teams.

When the war began on Jan. 17, Vermillion witnessed returning A-10s peppered with anti-aircraft artillery holes. Some were shot up so badly that maintenance crews were amazed the pilot made it back, she said.

On Jan. 21, an Air Force Pave Low helicopter brought a Navy pilot to the MASF. His F-14A Tomcat had been shot down by an Iraqi surface-to-air missile, but he had managed to evade and escape. His radar intercept officer, however, had been captured. The pilot suffered from burst blood vessels.

“He had all these red capillaries burst on his skin,” said Vermillion. She and her team treated and monitored him until an aircraft could be scheduled to evacuate him.

When the ground offensive was about to commence, Vermillion and her team transferred closer to the Iraq border, to Log Base Charlie. Tank movements were a regular sight, and Vermilion would receive litter and ambulatory patients from combat support hospitals. Once they arrived, her team provided care until an aircraft could fly them out.

“Most planes already had [medical] crews aboard,” Vermillion said, which allowed her and her team to stay close to combat operations.

As combat operations slowed, Vermillion’s team remained at Log Base Charlie until receiving redeployment orders and transportation.

Vermillion’s redeployment was especially memorable when she landed in the United States. When she arrived at Westover, Massachusetts, Vermillion stepped off the airplane onto a red carpet and was greeted by a hanger filled with cheering townspeople. At her final destination, Pope AFB, an aircrew member popped the hatch of the C-130 and held out an American flag. Deployed Airmen’s families had gathered to greet and cheer for their returning loved ones.

Vermillion’s contributions to wartime operations were not over, however. By the time of the second Iraq war in 2003, Vermillion was a colonel commanding the 43rd Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, formerly the 1st Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, at Pope AFB.

“I wasn’t the first nurse to command the squadron,” she said, “but I was the first female.”

Vermillion deployed to Kuwait International Airport where she commanded all mobile air staging facilities in her area of responsibility, including Air Force Reserve and Air National Guard MASFs.

“We were the hub,” said Vermillion. Patients were brought to Kuwait where doctors evaluated them and sent them to the Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany. Vermillion’s responsibilities also included flying to different MASFs, making sure they were running smoothly and that they had what they needed to do the mission.

Vermillion departed Kuwait after three months, but continued to lead combat casualty care. In 2004, she became the medical group commander at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. While there she organized and helped transport arriving combat casualties from the flight line. Most patients were sent to Landstuhl Regional Medical Center for surgery or examination, while others were flown back to the United States.

“I would go up to [the Intensive Care Unit] where Combat Care Air Transport Teams would bring them to be reevaluated,” she said. “It was phenomenal what could be done [with advancements in combat care].”

After her assignment as the medical group commander, Vermillion transferred to Travis AFB in California, serving as the chief nurse until her retirement in 2007. Looking back at her career, and the wars she served in, she feels proud of her service.

“It was a great career for me and a tremendous opportunity,” she explained. “I was able to do so many things that I would have never thought I would have been able to do.”

Vermillion said Air Force leadership made the difference.

“I worked for wonderful people who helped me make rank in the Air Force and had confidence in me to give me jobs and opportunities that broadened my horizons,” she said. “Hopefully, I was able to pass that on to people who worked for me, that I [also] gave them opportunities to do well in their careers.”

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