JOINT BASE LEWIS MCCHORD, Wash. --
In 2012, two flight nurses and three medical technicians assigned to Bagram Airfield, Afghanistan, took part in what they thought was a routine medical evacuation mission to Kandahar Airfield. Upon arrival, they learned there had been two mass-casualty events that resulted in enough casualties to fill their C-130 Hercules to capacity.
There were 13 gunshot-wounded patients and four intubated patients. The aeromedical evacuation team was charged with providing all of them with essential medical care on the 45-minute flight to Bagram that would bring them to a higher level of care.
“We were packed in there like sardines,” said Maj. Catherine Noel McNeal, a Reserve Citizen Airman flight nurse assigned to the 446th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, Joint Base Lewis-McChord, Washington, who was on that mission. “We agreed to take on the risk to get them all to higher care.”
One of the patients was a young female with multiple gunshot wounds. She had used her hands to shield her body from the shots since she was not wearing body armor at the time of the attack.
“Taking care of a female younger than I was really stuck with me,” McNeal said.
McNeal joined the Air Force Reserve in 2010 to honor her brother, Air Force Staff Sgt. Tim Davis, a combat control journeyman who was killed in an improvised explosive device strike near Bagram on Feb. 20, 2009.
She sought out a deployment to Afghanistan to pay homage to her brother, but she ended up finding more than that.
“It’s a world people don’t understand until they’re in it,” she said. “Service members used to seem robotic, like machines, to me. Once you get in, you see they’re all great people.”
Getting to know the people and the culture in the Air Force Reserve has made McNeal a more resilient person, she said. While serving, she has had the opportunity to learn more about herself and to come out stronger as a result.
“A lot of people don’t get to experience that point when you have no other option but to be strong and to dig deeper,” she said.
During her 2012 deployment to Afghanistan, McNeal wanted to take part in a fallen soldier ceremony – a tradition overseas for sending a fallen soldier home with honor and dignity. She recalls trying to work up the courage to be a part of the ceremony, but not being able to do so until the third opportunity. With some encouragement from her wingman, she finally took part.
“I kept thinking about the ceremony they had for my brother when I wasn’t there,” she said.
The resilience McNeal has found and grown in the Air Force Reserve has given her a purpose in her life she said she has not been able to mirror in her civilian career as an emergency room nurse.
While both careers are rewarding and fulfilling, the mission of an Air Force flight nurse gives her an avenue to continue honoring her brother while making a difference in the lives of others.
“Knowing these wounded soldiers are going to see their families again is healing to me,” she said. #ReserveResilient