Show Support for Military Nurses

By Donna Cardillo, RN, MA, CSP

Several years ago, I was contacted by a member of the nursing staff at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, the Army hospital that was receiving all wounded servicemembers transferred from Iraq and Afghanistan during that conflict, to U.S. military facilities.

I received an invitation to give a motivational speech at a conference in Germany during Nurses Week. I was told the nursing staff was experiencing “compassion fatigue” and needed a motivational shot in the arm. Compassion fatigue is a term that began to appear in the literature during the last several years. It is defined as a condition that results from caring for, and being exposed to, patients who have sustained traumatic injury. It goes beyond traditional burnout associated with the caring professions. In its most severe form, compassion fatigue is a deep, physical, emotional, and spiritual exhaustion accompanied by acute emotional pain. The American Academy of Family Physicians provides a detailed definition at www.aafp.org/fpm/20000400/39over.html

Upon my arrival in Germany, I asked for a tour of the hospital. I wanted to visit wounded soldiers, but I especially was eager to talk to military nurses. While Landstuhl is staffed primarily by active duty nurses, an influx of U.S. Army Reserve nurses was helping to staff it at that time. These reservists had to leave their families and civilian jobs to serve for one year.

Military nurses work with casualties of war in the acute, post-acute, and chronic phases of injury and illness. Many of the wounded soldiers for whom they care are the ages of their own children. It is gratifying work, but it can wear on the emotions.

I visited several of the hospital’s units and talked with many nurses. Their backgrounds, ages, and experience levels were diverse. I was amazed at how upbeat most of these nurses were and how committed they were to their mission of caring for wounded servicemembers.

I met one new graduate nurse who entered the military upon passing her licensing exam. In addition to learning all that new nurses need to learn in any setting, she also has had to acclimate to military life by living in a foreign country and seeing severe trauma. After she has some experience under her belt, she could have possibly been sent “downrange” — the military’s term for the war zone — for one year.

I brought with me to Germany notes of support from my nursing colleagues and distributed them to staff nurses and nurse managers at Landstuhl. The nurses appreciated the notes, and one RN was visibly moved. The comments I heard included “Many people come to visit the troops, but rarely does anyone come specifically to visit the nurses” and “We do get thank-you letters from the troops and their families. But it means so much to get notes of support from our civilian colleagues. It’s nice to know they are thinking of us.”

Our military nurses play a vital role in any conflict or war effort as they care for our armed forces and for their families. They are instrumental in keeping our troops healthy and keeping our injured troops alive while helping them and their families to heal, cope, and return to their lives and work.

Show your support for military nurses. Send notes of support to the nursing staff at military facilities in the United States and abroad. Contact an individual facility to find out to whom the notes should be sent for distribution. Start with the department of nursing or nursing education and go from there.

Offer to share resoures and best practices and to stay connected. The military nurses with whom I spoke all expressed a desire to maintain contact and ongoing dialogue with their civilian counterparts.

If you know coworkers or colleagues who have been called to serve as reservists, stay in touch with them, send pictures and notes, and keep them updated on people and issues at work. Because reservists are working where the military needs them most, they might not be serving in their chosen specialty and will appreciate being kept up-to-date.

Through your professional associations, encourage the participation of military nurses in meetings, classrooms, and other discussion forums, both online and face-to-face as appropriate. Verbally recognize military nurses at conferences and meetings.

Support and honor our military nurses for the work they do, for the sacrifices they make, and for their contributions to our country’s health and safety. Address your letters of support to: Commander, Landstuhl Regional Medical Center, ATTN: Nursing Department, CMR 402, APO AE 09180.

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