January 2006

Providing Quality Medical Care for the Air Force

The following article was originally printed in The Dodgeville Chronicle of Dodgeville, Wisconsin for Colonel (Col.) Nancy Caldwell, retired, wife of Concord native Douglas Caldwell.  

Nancy Caldwell’s achievements were recently brought to light when she was one of 7 state nurse executives nominated for the Nurse Leader Award presented by the Wisconsin Organization of Nurse Executives. A little research reveals the nomination is only one of Caldwell’s many honors during her 33-year career.

Prior to her retirement from the U.S. Air Force Nurse Corps 13 years ago, Caldwell served as command nurse for U.S. Air Forces in Europe. She played a significant role in the deployment of contingency and expansion hospitals and aero medical staging facilities throughout Europe, in support of Operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm.

Caldwell began her nursing career in 1960. After 3 years, she was commissioned a first lieutenant and entered the U.S. Air Force at Bergstrom Air Force Base, Texas.

She worked in various nursing capacities there and at March Air Force Base, California, as well as at Minot Air Force Base, North Dakota. She assumed the positions of operating room supervisor and infection control officer, and received her bachelor of science degree in 1976, graduating magna cum laude with senior nursing honors.

Thule Air Force Base, Greenland, provided an interesting assignment in 1973. As operating room supervisor and clinical nurse, Caldwell participated in the aero medical evacuation of a premature infant from a remote village. This led to her being awarded the Sikorsky Helicopter Corporation Winged S Award. She also recalls that it was interesting serving as an operating room nurse on the ground support team for the Apollo 15 launch at Patrick Air Force Base, Florida.

In 1976, she began a 3-year assignment at Royal Air Force, Lakenheath, England. While there, she graduated from the Centers’ for Disease Control course in hospital infection control and epidemiology.

After another stint at Minot Air Force Base, ending as chief nurse of USAF Regional Hospital, she was sent to be chief nurse at Misawa Air Base in Japan.

She later served as chief nurse at Mac Dill Air Force Base, Florida, received a master of arts degree in communication from UW-Oklahoma, and served as chairperson of the Department of Nursing, USAF Medical Center at Scott Air Force Base, Illinois. She was promoted to colonel in 1983.

Command nurse at Langley Air Force Base, Virginia, became her next assignment in June 1987. She was with the Office of the Command Surgeon, Headquarters, Tactical Air Command.

“I had oversight responsibilities for the nurses and technicians at 18 hospitals and one clinic,” Caldwell explained. “In addition, 10 of our facilities had responsibilities for air transportable hospitals, where they actually had tented hospitals and would fly to other locations to set up and deliver health care.

“So I put a lot of work into the structure of policies, guidance and training of the personnel in air transportable hospitals,” she went on. “Along with their regular duties, these people had learning and skill expectations like setting up and tearing down tents and getting all their things ready. It’s not just walking in, like you do in a fixed hospital.”

“In 1990, I received a call offering me the position of command nurse for U.S. Air Forces in Europe,” Caldwell said. “I thought, ‘this sounds like a piece of cake: I’ve been doing this job for three years and I’ll have lots of time to travel…’”

She smiled, recalling the tremendous challenge that actually awaited her. 10 days after she arrived at Rhine-Main Air Force Base in Germany, Iraq invaded Kuwait.

“The staff at Langley Air Force Base — all of those people I trained in the air transportable hospitals — were the first medical people to go to the desert,” she said. “The base sent their fighter aircraft and the hospital went along with them.”

“It was an emotional time for me because there were all those staff members with faces and names I knew and was personally involved with going into harms way,” she added.

As command nurse, Caldwell was responsible for the health of Air Force personnel headquartered in a huge area between Norway and the bottom of Africa. Her jurisdiction included 26 hospitals and clinics, and eight contingency hospitals to set up in time of war.

“I needed to get some hospitals up and running, in case war was actually declared,” she said.

She and her staffs set up 3 hospitals in England, 3 in Germany and one in Denmark, as well as expanding the hospitals they already had in these countries and in Turkey. It was a big job.

“This means taking a building — a vacant clinic, airport hanger or whatever — a number of boxes, and making it into a hospital,” she explained. “We had all the equipment and supplies to set up the bare bones of a hospital.”

Some of the challenging tasks involved assessing the building, creating and readying an operating room and sterilization area, uncrating beds and assembling them, completely cleaning down the building, laundering linen, unpacking surgical instruments to sort and distribute and setting up wards, urgent care emergency rooms, and other areas.

“Whenever you have large groups of people, even though you may not have a bullet fired, you have people getting vehicular or equipment accidents and who get sick,” she explained.

In addition, the Air Force is the sole agency in charge of doing aero medical evacuation — that is removing patients from the theatre of war and deciding where to take them. Planning these transportation arrangements between Saudi Arabia and Germany was complicated, with patients needing care during transport and lay-over rests at hospitals that had to be set up along the routes.

U.S. casualties were much less than expected, but the staffs were kept busy caring for the thousands of National Guard and Reserve members who were deployed to that part of the world.

Caldwell is also credited with playing a prominent role in the downsizing of theatre health operations, the relocations of the aero medical unit from Rhine-Main to the Ramstein Air Base, and for the integration of the 244 Air Force personnel into the Landstuhl Army Regional Medical Center.

The American Red Cross recognized Caldwell with an Operation Desert Shield Certificate of Appreciation, due to her collaboration with the European District of the Red Cross to support volunteer recruitment, training, and placement of volunteers.

When the ground war was over, Caldwell traveled a lot with her job, overseeing medical facilities in Turkey, Spain, Greece, Italy, Germany, Holland and England.

During her military career, Caldwell also served as command consultant in Infection Control for U.S Air Forces in Europe, Pacific Air Forces, Tactical Air Command, and Military Airlift Command. Certified in Advanced Nursing Administration and Infection Control Practice, she served as a consultant to the Air Force Surgeon General.

She is a member of numerous professional organizations, and has been listed in “Who’s Who in American Nursing” since 1988. Her military awards and decorations include the Meritorious Service Medal with five oak leaf clusters, Air Force Outstanding Unit Award with oak leaf cluster, Air Force Organizational Excellence award with two oak leaf clusters, National Defense Service Medal with service star, Air Force Longevity Service Award Ribbon with 6 oak leaf clusters, Air Force Reserve Ribbon and Air Force Training Ribbon. She completed Squadron Officer School and Air Command and Staff College in 1977 and Air War College in 1982. She was promoted to colonel in 1983 and retired in 1993.

For more information contact Dick Krug, director of Veteran Services for the town of Concord, located at 105 Everett Street. He can be reached at 978-318-3038 or by email.