LCDR Carolyn Kirkland, U.S. Navy Nurse Corps
Cover photo by Christine Craddock
I would say the bottom line is that I loved serving my country. I loved being married to someone who served their country.
Interview with Warrenton veteran LCDR Carolyn Kirkland, U.S. Navy Nurse Corps, a retired US Navy nurse and a dynamic and energetic advocate for recognition and awareness of veterans.
How did you become interested in nursing and the Navy?
It’s been an interesting life, and even though some parts were hard, I wouldn’t trade any of it. I was raised in an orphanage. My favorite books when I was growing up were Cherry Ames books, and in the one that I loved the most she was a flight nurse. And that’s what I dreamed of being. In a nutshell, I got a scholarship to nursing school, and then I became a hotel nurse for Conrad Hilton and the Palmer House in Chicago. In that period of time, in 1966, I really wanted to be in the military. That’s when Vietnam was really kicking up. I wanted to enlist. I wanted to be somebody, but I didn’t know what that was. I didn’t know what that meant. I just wanted it. So I joined the Navy in 1966, and since I had some nursing experience, I went in as a Lieutenant Junior Grade.
So what types of postings did you have in your career?
My first posting was at Oakland Hospital in Oakland CA, a 20-bed amputee ward. It was probably the best experience of my life. At that time I probably weighed 95 pounds. And some of the patients were big men, and they were all amputees. I had to get them in and out of bed. They were afraid they were going to hurt me. I was having back pain because of it, but I was afraid they’d medic me out of the Navy. I was determined to avoid that. I was not going to give in to the pain, I was absolutely not going to. I had orders to the USS Repose, a hospital ship, but I refused because of the back issues. Instead, I was posted to Naples, Italy, doing general nursing. There they were having a problem with hepatitis — it was just rampant. Then I was sent to Quantico, where I also did general nursing. That’s where I met my husband.
When did you leave the military?
I got out in 1977, and eventually we chose to settle in Virginia.Then I was the outreach nurse at Vint Hill until it closed in 1997, and I also worked at the Department of Rehabilitation in Manassas. Bud had Agent Orange, and I cared for him at home. When he passed, I didn’t know who I was anymore.
But you’ve found it now.
I don’t know. It’s developing. I was Bud’s wife. Bud was a larger than life character. Since he passed away, I have more time to do what I wanted to do. My focus in life at this point is just veterans.
Why is that so important to you?
I would say the bottom line is that I loved serving my country. I loved being married to someone who served their country. I feel some veterans are being overlooked, especially those that fought in the Korean War. I want awareness and recognition for what they’ve done for this country. I want their stories. I want everyone to appreciate what they went through.
I feel passionate about it because we’re leaving a bunch behind, a whole generation of military that served this country. It’s like when they take off their uniforms, everyone forgets what they did. Now so many people don’t know who they are, what experiences they’ve had, and what their story is. Everyone focuses on WWII vets, because there are less and less of them every day. Then, what’s the next war everyone talks about? The recent war in Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s just like we skipped Korea, Vietnam…we’re skipping all the Shock and Awe, Fallujah. Those guys that were there, they are still out there. Some of them literally have nothing, and they need our help and appreciation.
And there are so many others who aren’t appreciated and recognized, like the medical staff. What about the nurses and doctors that risked their lives taking care of these soldiers? There were nurses and medics who were captured, treated as POWs in Vietnam, beaten and sent to China to be beaten even worse. I worked with some of them when I was a nurse at Oakland.
What is the best way to show appreciation to veterans?
When I go to Harris Teeter, I like that they have four parking spots designated for veterans. When I see veterans there, I always talk to them. When you see a vet, stop him and thank them for their service. That’s why you see them wearing their hats and their ribbons: they want you to know they did something during the war. Ask them about their experiences. And that will make them smile! The problem is that women vets don’t often wear their hats and pins and t-shirts, so they’re especially unrecognized. I’m trying to help that too, to bring attention to women veterans and help with whatever they need.
Tell me about some local veterans.
Let me tell you about this guy, Jack, he was one of the cashiers at Harris Teeter. Jack and I started talking politics one day, and it turns out that he was an army ranger in Vietnam. Those guys were in up to their necks and experienced so much, so then we talked about the military. He had Agent Orange so badly. He had it everywhere. Every bone, his brain. There wasn’t any place in his body that wasn’t affected. Because I was a nurse, he would talk to me about his illness. The doctors gave him maybe another year, and he lasted three. Here’s a guy who…nobody knew what he’d gone through. He’s standing there going through treatment for Agent Orange, probably hurting like hell, and just continuing to check out shoppers with a smile and kind words. But no one knew. it made me sad, that all these people walking through the store had no idea… I said to the managers, we need to make sure he’s recognized, but these young gals, they don’t get it. They say, oh, we appreciate him, but they really don’t understand. He’s gone now, I always say a prayer for him, I loved him. I gave him a hug every time I saw him. He was an inspiration.
What does Arlington National Cemetery mean to you?
I love going to Arlington to thank them all for doing what they did. And it’s made me more and more sensitive as I’ve gotten older. When I go to Bud’s grave, I walk across to other sections. Close to him, there are all these Korean vets that were POWs, and nobody even glances at them. The last time I went up it was to place a wreath on Bud’s grave, I cried all the way from the chapel, picking up a wreath for him, and going to his gravesite to place it. And people are running around and taking pictures like it was an amusement park. Kids are just running around. They’re not teaching these kids about properly placing the wreath and touching the stone and saying the person’s name out loud. These veterans deserve respect. I can’t do that again. I said never again. I’ll go other times. I go up on our anniversary now, and for his birthday, and for the Marine Corps birthday. But I’ll never go on those busy days; it’s more than I can take, to have somebody disrespect that ground.
Why not tell your story?
Really, who would want to hear it? That’s what bothers me; I don’t want it to be about me. There are so many out there who have done far more than I. I wanted you to meet my neighbor, Dina. She was an enlisted army combat soldier and was injured. When she got out, she was disabled, and she’s now a nurse, a mother, and she just received her master’s degree. She works with research on traumatic brain injury and PTSD. She has a story.
There are so many stories. I didn’t want to be interviewed, I want you to interview all these other veterans.
So why did you agree to talk to me?
Again, because it’s Veterans Day. I’m pushing and pushing. How much time do I have left? How much time at my age do I have left as healthy as I am right now? While I can still work towards this goal? That’s why.
How are you working towards your goals?
I volunteer with Hero’s Bridge, I’m a member of the American Legion and the Military Officers Association of America (MOAA), and I’m an ambassador for the Boulder Crest Foundation.
My goal is to get help for veterans who need it, and get awareness and recognition for all veterans, including women, who often fly under the radar as far as this goes. Not everyone has the time like I do.
I’m really trying to encourage young vets to join the legions, the veterans organizations. First of all, they need the support that they can give each other, because they’ve had similar experiences. And we need new blood. This responsibility needs to pass to the next generation.
There are over 600,000 veterans in Virginia. That’s a big number. But if I can just help one, get them into a program they need, even if I don’t know it, I’d be so happy. Or reach one more volunteer to give their time. I recruit everywhere I go — doctor’s offices, the grocery store. I give out literature, talk to people, raise awareness of the programs that are available to vets and the needs of the organizations that help them and are in need of volunteers and support. Really, just a little of a volunteer’s time can go such a long way.
I talk a lot, and I talk fast. I don’t know how much time I have to continue to help, and I tell people, I’m rolling here, you can either jump on with me or jump off, I’m not slowing down.
Boulder Crest Foundation
Transforming Trouble into Strength
As the leader in the field of Posttraumatic Growth, veteran-led Boulder Crest Foundation, a 501(c)3 organization develops, delivers, and scales transformative programs to ensure combat veterans and first responders who have experienced trauma, and their families, are able to transform struggle into strength and lifelong growth. More broadly, they are working to drive change across the mental health system, in pursuit of a system that is accessible, effective, and healthy.
They fought for us. We fight for them.
Hero’s Bridge (R) is a nonprofit 501(c)3 organization dedicated to serving and honoring older veterans who are 65 and older. Through a variety of innovative programs (Battle Buddy, Honor Guard, Resource Scouts, Corps of Engineers, Paw Patrol, and Rapid Relief Corps) the goal is to bridge our veterans to a better quality of life at no cost to the veteran or their family.
Interested in volunteering? Contact Hero’s Bridge, the Boulder Crest Foundation, or any veterans organization (American Legion, VFW posts). They will be glad to help you find a way to volunteer and be appreciative of your support.