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‘I love it’: Nurse still serving, mentoring after 45 years

Retired Col. Charlene Carpenter has been working or volunteering at the Wilford Hall Ambulatory Surgical Center at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, for more than 40 years. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Jerilyn Quintanilla)

Retired Col. Charlene Carpenter has been working or volunteering at the Wilford Hall Ambulatory Surgical Center at Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, Texas, for more than 40 years. (U.S. Air Force photo/Staff Sgt. Jerilyn Quintanilla)

JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-LACKLAND, Texas -- In April 1997, after 26 years of honorable military service, newly retired Col. Charlene Carpenter chose to continue serving her country at the Wilford Hall Ambulatory Surgical Center, this time as a volunteer.

Born and raised in Windsor Ontario, Canada, Carpenter decided to attend Grace Hospital School of Nursing, and completed post graduate work for operating room technician and management at Vancouver General Hospital. She then moved to the U.S. and obtained citizenship before joining the Air Force in 1971.

“I completed OTS (Officer Training School) in 1971 and my first assignment was as an aeromedical evacuation nurse at Travis Air Force Base, California. I was there during the Vietnam War and we used to transport wounded service members back to the states for treatment,” Carpenter said.

Following her short stint at Travis AFB, Carpenter was assigned to the Wilford Hall Medical Center, now the WHASC, in 1972. While on active-duty, Carpenter served in many roles including staff nurse, scheduler and consultant for various medical units across the country.

Now with more than 40 years of experience, Carpenter can still be found in the Wilford Hall operating room and shows no signs of slowing down.

“I’ve been working here since 1972 and I’ve loved every minute of it. Nursing has always been a passion of mine,” said Carpenter. “My mother used to say that at a very young age I would carry my dolls around and try to put bandages or wrap them up as if they had injures.”

As a volunteer, Carpenter keeps busy as an OR nurse and has assisted in a wide range of procedures including neurosurgery; orthopedic; general; open-heart; ear, nose and throat; and vascular surgeries. To date, Carpenter has dedicated more than 12,400 hours assisting in more than 5,000 surgeries saving the Department of Defense approximately $291,060.

Over the course of 40 years, medicine and technology have changed tremendously and Carpenter has been witness to much of it.

“The technology has changed a lot and it took some time to get used to,” she said. “But the advances in medicine have been phenomenal. I remember a time when, if a patient came to us with cancer in one of their limbs, that entire limb would have to be removed. It’s amazing to see the level of care we’re able to provide nowadays.”

For Carpenter, it’s the love of helping people that keeps her motivated after all these years.

“People always ask me why I chose to volunteer and all I can say is that I do it because I love it,” she said. “I have been incredibly fortunate. The military has given me so much; it’s my turn to give a little back.”

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