Published in the Daily Progress Nov. 11, 2023.
Though I spent the first twelve years of my life in metro Detroit, I came of age in suburban Pennsylvania. As a college student studying nursing, I longed for excitement: I just knew I wanted more, and to do things that weren’t the norm. For me, the Army’s “Be All that You Can Be” ad campaign in the 1980s hit home and held great promise. Action, adventure, travel, physical challenges: it all sounded good because it all sounded different.
So, in 1987, a newly graduated nurse and commissioned officer, my military orders sent me on a red-eye flight to Frankfurt in what was then West Germany. Arriving in the dark morning fog, I took a bus a few hours south to Landstuhl, and my assigned duty station at the Landstuhl Army Regional Medical Center. Though I longed to be among other American soldiers living in the barracks, as an officer, I was instructed to in a snug German hotel, the first time I ever had my own room. From there, I could walk down the street to the hospital where I began work as a medical surgical nurse. A month later, I had my own apartment. I was 22.
Arriving in West Germany,
I knew what the Cold War was about. Being there, though, made it feel much more real. Because we were geographically close to the conflict’s epicenter, we had monthly drills where we’d assemble in our fatigues with lightweight battle equipment at our assigned duty stations. There was a regular train for military personnel that traveled from Frankfurt to West Berlin, which passed through Russia-occupied East Germany, and entered West Berlin at “Checkpoint Charlie”—a trip that, to me, felt a little too dangerous to make. And military professionals and the infrastructure to support them were everywhere.
But slowly, after my arrival in West Germany, it became apparent that the Cold War was shifting. The Armed Forces network radio would announce the closure of certain roads because American Pershing missiles that had once stood at attention were being moved away and decommissioned. On the Autobahn, famous for having no speed limits, there were crowds of tiny, slower, eastern European car brands alongside the more usual Volkswagens, BMWs, and Mercedes, that would hurtle down the tarmac. Those who’d lived behind the Iron Curtain—then the countries of Yugoslavia, Czechoslovakia, and others—could finally freely travel, and travel they did. What had been a robust American military presence when I’d arrived began to shrink. Through it all, my work as a nurse continued, unabated.
For so many people in our world, the promise of freedom and autonomy and economy and safety is categorically unrealized: tune into the news and you’ll see people’s heartbreaking plights. Our American geography has been and will continue to be one of our many strengths, and, from my perspective, our military has more often sought to support and humanitarian care and relief for the world’s citizens rather than to overpower them.
Veteran’s Day for me is a moment to marvel at and appreciate the circumstances of where I find myself as an American and former Army nurse. Yes, America and its military have problems—like any big, unwieldy family or organization, it’s always complicated—but the good our armed forces do vastly outweighs the bad and I am proud and honored to have served.
For that, I am a better practitioner and nurse educator, building on the experience and lessons learned during my nursing career in the Army. For as thoughtless as my entry into the military initially was, as I look back, I’m amazed by what I did and who it made me. Some people view military service as the choice people make who have no other choice. But for this Army nurse, serving this country was the best professional decision I ever made.
Veteran Capt. Gretchen Wiersma is a pediatric nurse and an associate professor at UVA School of Nursing. She keeps a piece of the Berlin Wall among other mementos of her 10-year U.S. Army service.