By Mr. Ronald W Wolf (Army Medicine)May 8, 2018
The start of a military career may be shaped by many things. Love of country, belief in service, family influences or traditions, even that snappy uniform, may play a role.
For Col. Jennifer Coyner, current Chief, Department of Anesthesia and Operative Services at Carl R. Darnall Army Medical Center, Fort Hood, Texas, family was a big influence in her decision to become an Army Nurse. Coyner's story is the story of Army nursing--and the Army family as well.
Her nursing career begins with her grandmother. Bettie Burdette entered her nursing training during World War II, and she always wanted to serve as an Army Nurse. She did get the opportunity to train in the Nurse Cadet Corps on Staten Island during the war and some of her greatest memories were of taking care of wounded soldiers when they came home.
Coyner remembers her nursing stories--told with a gleam in her eye and great pride. Bettie Burdette loved her time in the Cadet Corps and her career in Charleston, W.Va. Those stories influenced Coyner. "She seemed to me," Coyner said, "the epitome of a nurse and was even known as the Florence Nightingale of the city. She was very smart, serious about her profession, and she was no-nonsense. She served for many years as an instructor at the Charleston General School of Nursing, and then as the Director of Nursing."
Coyner's father, Joe Coyner, was an Army helicopter pilot. She recalls that even at a very young age thinking that he was special. "I loved his uniform, his boots, dog tags, and his hat with rank," Coyner said. "I was drawn to the discipline he showed in polishing his boots at night or coming home and doing pushups and sit-ups in the living room before dinner."
Joe Coyner was in Vietnam when his daughter was born and didn't see her until Coyner was 6-months old. He served just over 20 years on active duty and although he was away from home for extended periods of time, he was there for her graduations, to provide sage career advice, and commission her out of Army ROTC.
Coyner's mother, Jane, was also a positive influence, and Coyner believes her mom most influenced her positive outlook and belief that she had no limitations. Mom was a career mom; like many military spouses not actually in the military, she was nevertheless on duty and "wearing the uniform"--the family leader while dad was in Vietnam, training exercises, and many short-notice missions. While the frequent moves were difficult for Coyner and her siblings, her mom always infused adventure, excitement, and a positive attitude as they prepared to go to each new place. Coyner feels certain that these moves were tough for her mom, but as a kid, she consistently saw a "glass half full" attitude from her mom. That resiliency was a powerful influence to Coyner.
Although Coyner didn't initially plan on a career as an Army Nurse, eventually the multiple seeds of family influence began to merge and grow. That put her on the path to nursing school and a 4-year Army ROTC scholarship at the University of South Florida.
After graduation, her first assignment was Tripler Army Medical Center. Coyner's first passion in nursing was oncology and she was able to work on the pediatric oncology unit which she states was an outstanding first assignment. However, when she discovered anesthesia while working on labor and delivery at Winn Army Community Hospital, she knew exactly what she wanted to do in nursing. She was accepted into the US Army Graduate Program in Anesthesia Nursing in 2000 and in December, 2002 she was assigned as a staff CRNA at Walter Reed Army Medical Center. Coyner describes being an anesthesia provider as a perfect fit.
She has also gone on to complete a doctorate in philosophy in neuroscience from the Uniformed Services University.
So far Coyner's career as an Army Nurse is approaching 24 years.
She has deployed twice to Iraq, and she also was part of a humanitarian mission with a team from Walter Reed to the Dominican Republic. There, the surgical team addressed issues such as correcting cleft lip and palate and other craniofacial surgeries, primarily on children. She spent a year in Korea on a Forward Surgical Team between the two deployments to Iraq. She describes her deployments as the most meaningful work she'll ever do.
"As an Army Nurse and an Army CRNA," Coyner said, "I have always known that I am part of something honorable and unique."
Coyner has many special stories as an Army Nurse. "I will never forget being at the head of the bed as an anesthetist during deployment, often being the last person to speak to a dying Soldier. I would always keep a hand on their shoulder and tell them that they did a good job. I would say 'you're going to be ok' just in case that allowed them even a moment of relief," Coyner said. There are also all of the little stories that make being an Army Nurse and a member of Army Medicine special.
For students considering a career in nursing, especially Army Nursing, Coyner recommends that they seek out people currently doing the job in order to determine whether it's the right fit for them. She emphasized that there are many opportunities in nursing to include care at the bedside, administration, leadership, education, and research. But at its core, nursing is about taking care of people and providing the very care you would want for yourself or your family. "I hope that never gets lost in technology," she said.
"Like my grandmother," Coyner said, "I am certain that I always speak of my career as an Army Nurse with a gleam in my eye and with tremendous pride."
Bettie Burdette sent Coyner a copy of a West Virginia magazine on her first deployment. On the magazine was a sticky note on which her grandmother had written, "Jenny, you don't have to believe in war to care for the wounded." That resonated with Coyner and helped her through challenging times.
Bettie Burdette passed away this past April--94 years old--still proud of her time in the Nurse Cadet Corps during World War II. She was buried with her nursing pin.