By Kari Hawkins, Redstone Rocket StaffAugust 25, 2008
There's nothing like looking after the health of Soldiers and their families.
Since going to college on an ROTC scholarship, Maj. Elizabeth Vinson has faced challenges, overcome obstacles and stretched her own abilities to provide the best nursing care possible to Soldiers. She's served in Germany, Kosovo and Afghanistan, and at various installations in the U.S.
"When I talk to my nursing classmates from college, nothing they've done can compare with the experiences I've had," Vinson said. "The Army was definitely an excellent career choice for me."
Now, this Starkville, Miss., native is serving at Fox Army Health Center, where she is head nurse of the center's five primary care clinics and where she recently was named commander of the Warrior Transition Unit, a specialized unit that takes care of injured Soldiers until they are healthy enough to return to their assigned unit.
It's an assignment that offers the opportunity to provide care to Soldiers recovering from war-related injuries, address health issues of Soldiers and their families stationed at Redstone Arsenal, and work with an experienced staff committed to Soldier and Soldier family care. As the primary care clinic head nurse, she is responsible for clinic operations and the nursing staff at the health center. As the WTU commander, she is responsible for overseeing the care of Soldiers in various stages of healing.
"I became an Army nurse for a reason. I actually like taking care of Soldiers," Vinson said. "It's a great honor."
Currently, there are 13 Soldiers in the WTU. It can take up to 20 Soldiers, who report to two squad leaders.
"Our primary mission is for these Soldiers to heal," she said. "A traditional company is focused on the wartime mission and training requirements. In this company, we are focused on the physical, spiritual and mental health of Soldiers, on the overall well-being of Soldiers."
The company staff - which consists of Master Sgt. Marshall Brown, the WTU's first sergeant; Staff Sgt. Curtis Carson; nurse case manager Deborah Holden, primary care physician Dr. (Maj.) Michael Madkins; medical evaluation board representatives Dr. Monica Gorbandt and licensed professional counselor Karen Scott - ensures Soldiers get the medical care they need, assists with family needs, assigns Soldiers to work assignments, encourages Soldiers to take college course, provides counseling and oversees other recovery needs.
"We want to return them to an optimum stage of health and prepare them for the next stage in their life, whether that is serving or transitioning out," Vinson said.
"We want to make sure they are a better Soldier when they leave here. It's very satisfying to see a Soldier first come to us and then see them make improvements to where they can finally say goodbye to us. We want them to have productive lives."
Vinson joined the Army Nurse Officer Corps in 1995 after attending the University of Mobile on a four-year ROTC scholarship.
"My father was in the Army and my oldest brother was in the Army also," she said. "When it was time to go to college, I applied for an ROTC scholarship. I figured I could give four years.
"But four years came and went, and I was still having fun and enjoying myself. So, I stayed."
Those first years included serving as a staff nurse at an Army hospital in Heidelberg, Germany, and then as the chief nurse of the Army clinic in Darmstadt.
In 2000, Vinson was deployed on a six-month peacekeeping and humanitarian aid mission to Kosovo with the 212th MASH Unit, the last MASH unit in the Army. In 2001, she reported to Fort Knox, Ky., where she was a nurse counselor for Army ROTC programs. Her next assignment in 2004 took her to Fort Gordon, Ga., where she was head nurse of the community care center at Eisenhower Army Medical Center.
Vinson served with the 14th Combat Support Hospital in Afghanistan from January 2006 through February 2007. She was the head nurse at the CASH Minus, a break-off from the main CASH and stationed at Forward Operating Base Salerno along the Afghanistan/Pakistan border, where they treated Soldiers and local residents at a four-bed intensive care and four-bed intermediate care unit.
"We saw a lot of gunshot wounds and IED injuries," Vinson said of her time at the CASH Minus. "We had over 396 trauma cases while I was there."
Vinson and her CASH also provided care for the local residents.
"It was humbling to see the level of health care that didn't exist in that country. Afghanistan is truly a third world country," she said.
"We were attached to the 10th Mountain Division. Its units were very good about getting out and establishing relationships with the local communities. Patients from the local area would come to us, or Soldiers would be out in the communities and they would find children who needed care and they would bring them to us. We treated people from Afghanistan and Pakistan in our American hospital."
Although Vinson knows how to deal with her emotions when it comes to treating Soldiers, she said it was difficult to keep her spirits up when local children were brought to the CASH and there was little hope for their survival.
"It was emotionally draining when there was the death of a child," she said. "There was a period of time when we lost five children in 10 days. That was very difficult on the staff. But our command was very good at bringing in behavioral counselors and chaplains to talk to any of us who were having difficulties dealing with things."
The environment of Afghanistan and the CASH Minus helped the medical staff develop a deep bond within their team.
"We looked after each other. They were the finest enlisted Soldiers and NCOs I've ever worked with," Vinson said. "We still keep in touch. I'd go back in a heartbeat to work with them again."
Vinson asked to be assigned to Redstone Arsenal, knowing it would put her closer to her parents in Mississippi. She is divorced and has two daughters - 6-year-old Ellie and 4-year-old Becca - who have enjoyed spending lots of time with their grandparents. Vinson has also enjoyed being in the Southeastern Conference and being able to attend Mississippi State football games. She calls herself a Bulldog and SEC fanatic.
Being in the Army has been difficult for her children at times. But Vinson makes sure her daughters know how important their mom's work is.
"They know mommy is a nurse and takes care of people who really need to be taken care of, and that they have their grandparents to take care of them when I'm not here," she said.
"When I was in Afghanistan, Ellie knew she could look up at the stars and know mommy was looking at the same stars. So, really I was not that far away."
Vinson said health center commander Col. Mark Smith is very family oriented and has made it easier for her to manage family and work.
"He's very understanding and focused on needs," she said. "The mission will get done. But the mission is always people first. The mission and the people are not separate, they are intertwined. He puts a lot of importance on the individual Soldiers in his command. His energy and enthusiasm is contagious. He makes you want to be better. He makes you want to look to your future."
Vinson is already planning for her future, which includes beginning a two-year master's degree program at the University of Alabama-Birmingham or the University of Memphis in the summer of 2009. She will attend college under the Army's long-term health and education training program.
"It will be my duty assignment for two years. I will still have a salary, my college will be 100 percent paid for and I will have full benefits. You can't beat that opportunity in the civilian world," Vinson said.
Even with the sacrifices she has made, Vinson said the Army is a good career choice for people who want to make a difference. She encourages young people considering the Army to research their options and talk to Soldiers who are doing the type of job they want to do. She would recommend an Army nursing career to anyone interested.
"They have to understand, though, it's not a 9-to-5 job. It's a lifestyle," Vinson said. "When people ask me what I do I say 'I'm a Soldier in the U.S. Army. I'm an Army nurse.' There's a difference between being a nurse and being an Army nurse."