Almost twenty years ago, several Army nurses at William Beaumont Army Medical Center worked together on the surgical and medical wards, depending on each other to meet their missions. Today, eight nurses who once donned gold bars now wear silver oak leafs on their chest and still depend on one another for mission success.
Lt. Cols. Marta Artiga, Lambert Cabales, Rich Clark, Sarah Huml, Greg Lara, Dahlia Pacheco, Jerry Rivera Santiago, and Perry Ruiz, all worked at WBAMC in the late 90s, early 2000s, on the Surgical, Medical Wards and Operating Rooms. Twenty years later this collection of Army Nurses reflect on their careers, missions and the impact they had, and continue to have at WBAMC.
"They call us the mafia, in a good way," said Clark, chief of Information Management Division and chief information officer/ chief medical information officer at WBAMC. "Not only do we have a relationship between all of us, but we have a relationship to the organization."
The O-5 Mafia, a reference to their rank and pay grade, call WBAMC home, where they learned nursing skills, selfless service, and the value of friendship.
Strong bonds developed with peers prepared us for our Army careers, said Cabales, chief of Perioperative Nursing Services at WBAMC.
That preparation is evident as the Soldiers advanced their careers in the medical field, while continuing education beyond their nursing degree.
Artiga, clinical nurse officer in charge of Same Day Surgery Services at WBAMC, first began her journey in the Army National Guard before commissioning and her first assignment as a nurse at WBAMC's ninth floor, or Medical Ward, in 1999.
"I think the beginning was very interesting because I wanted to be stationed in Texas so I asked the recruiter for Texas, they placed me at WBAMC," said Artiga, a native of El Salvador. "We all had a very tense time in the beginning, to a point where (the workload) built us up and peers listened to each other and took care of each other."
Following her tour at WBAMC, Artiga, who had previously deployed to Saudi Arabia, spent time around the world, eventually deploying in support of Operation Iraq Freedom. But it was a training deployment that cemented Artiga's appreciation for the Army and other Soldiers.
"My mother passed away while I was on deployment (to Iraq), so I didn't want to go back to El Salvador," said Artiga. "I got back with a sense of guilt of not being bedside with my mother."
Years after returning, Artiga took the opportunity to deploy on a training mission to Honduras, a neighboring country of El Salvador. Her mission was to prepare Honduran Armed Forces for deployment.
"It was very rewarding because I needed to close the loop in the country where I was born. The most important thing that I realized was I was going with my family (other Soldiers)," said Artiga. "I think (my mother) would be proud and happy because we went to train Soldiers who were going to deploy to Iraq. It was very rewarding and about closing the loop with my family. After that I felt that the U.S. was the country I would definitely defend and protect."
Camaraderie, is how most of the group describes their relationships with all having their unique experiences lead them to their current roles as leaders.
"For me, it's the memories of coming back, full circle and being with the same folks we were once with," said Cabales, a native of Oklahoma City. "I'll never exchange the experiences we've had here and that we continue to have because they are my extended family. There's some things that you can't just replace and those are the memories that we shared of knowing that we won't ask junior (Soldiers) things that we haven't done ourselves."
Cabales, who was at WBAMC's Medical Ward in 2001, believes his first taste of health care at WBAMC well-prepared him for future assignments, including deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.
"It was a struggle, but every assignment that I've been through (since leaving WBAMC) have not been as hard as what we've (the group) been through," said Cabales. "For me, knowing their work ethic, their personalities, when the command tells us to do something, I know it will get done. Just knowing we still have each other's back, that's why I stay in the military."
Rivera Santiago, a native of Coamo, Puerto Rico, serves as WBAMC's clinical nursing officer in charge of the Operating Room. First starting his Army career as an enlisted Soldier, Rivera Santiago jumped at the opportunity to take part in an enlisted to commissioned program.
"The reason I joined was to learn English, to travel and to get an education," said Rivera Santiago, who has twice deployed to Iraq. "(Being assigned to the Medical Ward) was one of the best things that have happened to me, because it prepared me in the basics of nursing.
"I grew up having everything through the Army, before that I came from a poor environment and now I'm at a place where I don't have to worry about those kind of things," said Rivera Santiago. "Not that they just gave it to me, you really have to work for it, but it's there. I like the options I've had through the Army."
Getting the opportunity to meet his peers at WBAMC and see them once again after so many years, is one of Rivera Santiago's greatest takeaways.
Not all the Soldiers started their nursing careers at WBAMC. Pacheco, a native of Pittsburg, California, was first introduced to Army Medicine at Tripler Army Medical Center, in Hawaii, where she served as a medical-surgical nurse. Following her tour in Hawaii, Pacheco added emergency room nursing to her skill set before landing at WBAMC.
"My family came to the U.S. when I was 12. We were immigrants, we didn't have any money for college," said Pacheco, a clinical nurse specialist at WBAMC's Perioperative Nursing Services. "I would have been stuck in California in a community college, so (the Army) was definitely a good opportunity."
Pacheco, who has deployed to Iraq and Afghanistan, spent time as an Operating Room nurse at WBAMC after a brief stint out of the Army. Additionally, Pacheco's relationships with some of the lieutenant colonels at WBAMC precede their time in uniform.
"We were both Army ROTC cadets from the University of San Francisco," said Huml, deputy commander for Quality and Safety at WBAMC, discussing her relationship with Pacheco. "(WBAMC) has a special place in my heart. I was married here, and started my family here."
Huml, who deployed to Iraq with Cabales and Pacheco as part of the 31st Combat Support Hospital, says her interest in nursing started as a teenager.
"I had the opportunity to volunteer in rural Mexico as a teenager, and decided that nursing was my calling," said Huml. "When I was a nursing student I saw the ROTC cadets rappelling off the side of the nursing building and was recruited into the Army ROTC program.
"Nursing was my calling, and after my combat experience with the 31st CSH, Army Nursing was my calling," said Huml. "The relationships I have made, that started here at WBAMC, were also the reason I have stayed in as an Army Nurse. I know that I will be retiring this summer, but will have this connection to my Army family forever. Throughout my career I have made meaningful relationships which inspired me to serve."
A deeper understanding of medicine led Lt. Col. Perry Ruiz, chief of Nursing Operations at WBAMC, to a career in nursing.
"Whenever I used to take my wife and our baby to the doctor I never really understood what was happening. But I did realize that if I knew what nurses know then I could take better care of my own family," said Ruiz, a native of El Paso, Texas.
Ruiz, who is on his third assignment at WBAMC, also got his start on the Medical Ward in 1998. After two deployments to Afghanistan, Ruiz shares one of his fondest memories from his deployment, which still resonates with him.
"What started out as a calm night with (a 10-year-old Afghan boy) talking quietly with his grandpa ended up being loud and chaotic with all the bright lights turned on. (The boy) went into cardiac arrest, we did everything we could to save him but nothing worked," said Ruiz, discussing some of the grim realities of the field. "We all learn what to do. We all become technically proficient. But what your patients need is not someone who is merely technically proficient, you need to sincerely care."
Ruiz who shares memories with Rivera Santiago, Clark, Lara, and Artiga states he never expected to reunite with his fellow nurses at this point in his career.
"We were all nurses. We were all (lieutenants). This was our first tour as officers. We did bond but never expected a reunion like this," said Ruiz.
When Ruiz joined the team of nurses on WBAMC's Medical Ward, he didn't join a group of strangers as some Soldiers do during their first assignment, a familiar face was there with him. Lt. Col. Greg Lara, chief of Hospital Education and Training, met Ruiz during Officer Basic Training, after serving seven years as a combat medic.
Lara, a native of Berthoud, Colorado, also too advantage of the Army's enlisted to commissioning program and started as a staff nurse in 1998.
"I like making a difference in patients' lives and fellow service members' lives," said Lara. "I still enjoy (nursing), which is why I continue to serve. The people you meet, the opportunities are abundant. I really enjoy educating, mentoring, guiding Soldiers, whether they are NCOs, officers or junior enlisted."
Taking a different approach to the nursing field, Clark, a native of Anderson, South Carolina, also began on the Medical Ward, but an interest in the technical aspects of nursing led the former air defender to nursing informatics.
"I did everything that I wanted to do as a kid (in Air Defense Artillery), my mom is a nurse, and stepfather is a physician, so I told myself that's the best way to go," said Clark. "Even though I work in (information technology), (being a nurse) helps bridge the gap between the physicians and IT. We look at IT from a clinical perspective now, to support the clinicians."
While plans for some of these senior nurses are to retire soon, others wish to continue serving the organization which has sown their careers and sewed their relationships which have lasted over two decades.
"I love coming to work every day, no day is ever the same. For us it feels like yesterday that we were in the Operating Room and (Medical Ward)," said Clark. "It's not just the camaraderie, but it's the mission too. We're taking care of America's sons and daughters. It's not about the money, it's about the role and the impact that you can make."