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Flight nurse devoted to helping others overcomes adversity

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Melody Bordeaux
  • 59th Medical Wing Public Affairs

Within the walls of the Gateway Club at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, decades of timeless military memorabilia are displayed as a witness to the courage and dedication of countless service members.

It is a place where people come together to celebrate and honor the accomplishments of our service members.

On Aug. 30, 2023, family, friends, and colleagues gathered to commemorate the retirement of Lt. Col. Dana Duerr. Prior to becoming a patient with the Airman Medical Transition Unit, she served as the Senior Program Manager of the Nurse Corps Education and Training Program at the Air Force Medical Readiness Agency.

Duerr, accompanied by a Wounded Warriors volunteer, sat in her wheelchair, donned in her service dress uniform, and connected to a breathing device during the ceremony. In the front row sat her family, among them was her 24-year-old daughter, Mikaela, elegantly dressed in a white blouse adorned with blue flowers, green dress pants, and golden butterfly earrings that complimented her golden hair.

For both Duerr and Mikaela, this ceremony was bittersweet; marking the culmination of 29 years of service filled with long days, late nights, and numerous sacrifices. However, amidst all the changes and challenges, one constant remained - their support for each other. As Duerr expressed her gratitude to her daughter, Mikaela smiled gently, tears slowly traced down her cheek.

“We come together to recognize a fantastic nurse, leader, and officer for her faithful devotion to the United States of America, but more importantly, her steadfast dedication to our teammates and our patients,” said Col. John Davis, 959th Medical Group commander and presiding officer over the retirement ceremony.

Duerr’s career exemplified excellence as a flight nurse, an educator, and a dedicated mother. Her contributions have been acknowledged through numerous awards, a testament to her unwavering commitment and exceptional work.

“I absolutely lived my life with the same code in and out of uniform,” Davis said, quoting Duerr. "I was raised to treat others as you want to be treated. Always stood for what was right for my people and myself regardless of the cost. I wanted to be able to look at myself in the mirror and like what I saw and be able to sleep at night.”

A few years ago, at Joint Base Anacostia-Bolling, Washington, D.C., Duerr stored mannequins in her garage during a departmental transition between buildings. In the evenings, Mikaela assisted her mother in preparing the mannequins, applying moulage to simulate injuries, and ensuring they were ready for Duerr’s training sessions with medics at various locations.

“You tend to get some attention traveling through the base gate with a lot of simulated human torsos in the back of your car,” Davis saif. “Ever the educator though, she used the opportunity of being pulled over to start a conversation with Security Forces and get them into their mandatory heart saver class.”

Throughout her career, Duerr consistently devoted herself to helping others. This commitment was evident as she participated in over 200 aeromedical evacuations in hostile environments in both Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as her dedication to saving lives beyond the call of duty.

“Taking care of people is not just her job; it’s her way of life,” Davis said. “Responding to an automobile accident, providing 20 hours of flood clean-up, treating two Iraqis who were severely burned, providing clean water for the Bedouin tribes, or rescuing a drowning child.”

There are times when Duerr faced difficult decisions, decisions she would have preferred to volunteer herself for. However, as the medical crew director at the time, that was not an option.

“During one of her deployment missions, Duerr had to decide which one of her team [members] would lose their Geneva Convention protection as a medic and be put in the line of fire as a combatant to provide security for their aircraft,” detailed Davis. “It’s the sort of responsibility few medics have to face.”

Nevertheless, despite these agonizing challenges, Duerr strived to learn as many roles and programs as possible, ensuring she had the opportunity to mentor others. Her personal and professional aspiration was to become a Chief Nurse. In 2019, Davis recognized her passion and selected her as his chief nurse at Holloman.

“Unfortunately, due to her recovery from back surgery, the Air Force was on the fence about her ability to still serve as she was undergoing a medical board,” expressed Davis. “Her assignment was canceled and she was never able to completely fulfill her dream.”

Faced with hardships that might have caused others to give up and accept their limitations, Duerr persevered, putting in significant effort to regain her strength and continue caring for others.

“Her love for the Air Force and nursing drove her to do the impossible," Davis said. "She persisted in her therapy and fought hard to win back her career, even going as far as completing a full [physical training] test, when just a few months before we weren’t even sure she would be able to walk without assistance.”

“I absolutely lived my life with the same code in and out of uniform. I was raised to treat others as you want to be treated. Always stood for what was right for my people and myself regardless of the cost. I wanted to be able to look at myself in the mirror and like what I saw and be able to sleep at night.”

– U.S. Air Force Col. John Davis, 959th Medical Group commander, quoting Lt. Col. Dana Duerr

After recovering from back surgery, Duerr returned to full duty and almost two years later deployed in support of COVID-19 operations at a Florida emergency room.

“During this tour, she would contract COVID-19 and find herself in a similar situation as many of her patients during her time as a flight nurse: critically ill as the disease ravaged her body and requiring [aeromedical evacuation] by a team like the one she used to lead,” Davis said. "Lt. Col. Duerr had to fight tooth and claw to get from where she was in that moment to where we are today."

One of the Air Force’s own medical heroes eventually became a patient of AMTU. This unit provides leadership, administrative support and transition planning in support of wounded, ill or injured Airmen during their recovery, rehabilitation and reintegration phase of care. Throughout this process, Duerr’s daughter, Mikaela, has been caring for her mother.

“Mikaela, I think it’s safe to say that if it wasn’t for you, your mom wouldn’t have made it as far as she has in the Air Force or in life,” Davis said. “Your love, encouragement, shoulder to cry on, and wingman attitude is what gets your mom up in the morning and drives her to be the best she can be. Your commitment to your mom and her commitment to you, ensured you both got to the end of this road together. As you begin your path to become a flight nurse in your own right, your mom has a lot to be proud of.”