Military World Games volleyball, 9-11 anniversary bring nurse full circle
September 8, 2011
RIO DE JANEIRO, Brazil - Between competing in the Conseil International du Sport Militaire's 5th Military World Games and her role in the 10th anniversary of the terrorist attack on America, Navy Lt. Commander Lauren Nilsen has come full circle.
Nilsen helped Team USA win an unprecedented gold medal at the 2001 CISM World Volleyball Championships in Viterbo, Italy.
Ten years later, she teamed with Air Force 1st Lt. Brooke Cultra of Ramstein Air Base, Germany, as Team USA's No. 1 women's beach volleyball squad at the 2011 Military World Games on Copacabana Beach in Rio de Janeiro.
She remembers both events like they were yesterday.
"We beat Italy -- in Italy -- for the gold," Nilsen said. "And it happened to be a week before 9-11."
Nilsen comes from a large family of police officers and civil servants on Long Island, N.Y.
"My whole entire family is Army or police officers -- my mom, my dad, my stepfather, my uncles, my brothers in law, my cousins," she said. "There's fire department, too."
She was daydreaming about her home in Kauai, Hawaii, known as the Garden Island of Peace, as she traveled Sept. 9 from Italy to LaGuardia Airport to visit family and friends in New York City.
"I remember it was the most beautiful September day, just still and gorgeous," Nilsen recalled. "We saw the first tower get hit, and I knew that my sister was in the city working. She got on one of the last trains that left Grand Central Station."
Nilsen and her sister's husband, a policeman, drove to meet her at the safe haven of Shea Stadium.
"I just remember hearing on the radio the whole way: 'Tower 1 down; Tower 2 down; plane into the Pentagon; plane down in Pennsylvania," Nilsen said. "And as we reached Shea, we could just see the huge cloud over the city."
The rest of the day and night was surreal to Nilsen.
"The whole day, even that night, I just couldn't even sleep," she said. "Because on Long Island, you've got LaGuardia, Kennedy and Islip, so you've always got aircraft in the air, and they shut down everything. No one has ever seen no aircraft in the sky. It was just a really eerie feeling.
"And I think a lot of us thought there was a lot more to come. I remember waking up the next morning really sweaty and hoping it was just a bad dream."
Following the attack, Nilsen decided to forego "the good life" in Hawaii and return to New York, where she completed school and pursued two of her "civilian dream jobs" as a corporate nurse and working with alternative medicine.
"I landed both of them," Nilsen said. "I got offered to be the nurse for Mayor Bloomberg's company, and for one of the top integrative doctors in the nation."
It didn't take long, however, for Nilsen to land in Afghanistan as a civilian nurse.
"I just remember taking care of my high-profile doctor's patients and just watching the war," she recalled. "And I was like: 'Lauren, just go back into the military.'"
Nilsen re-entered the Navy Reserve and accepted a mobilization deployment to Landstuhl Army Regional Medical Center in Germany, where many U.S. and NATO Soldiers wounded in Iraq and Afghanistan receive treatment. She reported in 2009 for a nine-month tour and remains there today.
"I've been a nurse for 18 years and that's the best nursing of my life, the most humbling," Nilsen said. "I never thought I would ever see, much less be a part of, taking care of our American troops and heroes with battle injuries. But I did that for about nine months and I was in a position where I could go back to the States and use my GI Bill to get my master's degree, or pursue my coaching, or other pursuits.
"But I decided I would regret it for the rest of my life if I did not go back there to work for another two years to take care of our wounded warriors, she said. I ended up working as a Navy Reservist out of Stuttgart. I work for the Department of the Army as a civilian contractor at Landstuhl." "I'm on one of the medical trauma units where we're still getting all the inbound from downrange.
"I think it completes a circle for me because in 2001 I was in the World Championships, and being a part of 9-11 in New York -- and having it directly affect my family and myself, it shifted the way I lived life -- just gave me a different perspective.
"My life wasn't as charmed any more. I was more considerate and intentional, I think. And 10 years later, here I am at the Military World Games playing beach volleyball at 39 years old, and at the same time working at Landstuhl."
Call it karma, fate or destiny, Nilsen believes it was meant to be.
"It's been healing for me," she said. "And I think my Family is really grateful that I can represent them as well by taking care of our guys over there in Germany.
"We do the best we can with a lot of dirty injuries from the explosions and gunshot wounds -- a lot of washouts preventing infection, tons of amputations that you don't see in the news. We just do our best to take care of their morale and do anything we can to make them as comfortable and relaxed as possible until we can get them back to the States, where they can make complete recovery."
Nilsen tends to far more than just U.S. troops at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center.
"Tons of Army," Nilsen said. "A lot of Marine Corps, Navy, and a lot of NATO troops -- we get the Romanians, the Polish, the Canadians, so it's not just Americans. We get a lot of guys from Jordan now, occasionally the Aussies, and a couple Brits."
At the Military World Games in Brazil, Nilsen embraced CISM's motto of "friendship through sport" while competing in "The Peace Games."
"It's been incredible," she said. "When I did it in 2001, there were only maybe 15 countries because it was all volleyball. After that, I was cool. I didn't need to do CISM anymore. Then this came around. I'm hanging out with Soldier-athletes from Sri Lanka, Korea, the Iranians. Just having simple conversation with them is breaking down some walls and perceptions. Just talking to them as a kind person representing the United States really makes a huge difference.
"Ecuador, South Africa, Venezuela -- and even at night in the athlete villages they have live music with a band," she continued. "It's a huge block party with the whole world, and the whole world is dancing together. Even the Chinese, they are like 'this is good for us to talk.' And we're riding on the bus with Albania, China, Pakistan, Qatar, Angola, and we're all just high-fiving each other, smiling, talking.
"So CISM is working, and I think the States should really know about this."
Team USA won Military World Games medals only in men's basketball, women's sailing and men's and women's parachuting, with the Golden Knights skydiving women bringing home the lone gold. The U.S. military athletes, however, understood and enjoyed their mission.
"We have a job to do," Nilsen said. "Our job is to be in the military and do our role, to serve in our job description. These folks, their governments pay them to represent them even in the international arena in professional sports. Maybe, if anything, it might be humbling to these other countries to see that we're not always dominating and that we are working and we are people who labor and work hard.
"Maybe that is good for them to see."