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Mercy Charity Flight Programs For Our Veterans: American Airlines & Robert Gates


Defense Secretary Gates With Dr. Val

I recently wrote about the heroic efforts of volunteer pilots involved in Mercy Medical Airlift and Air Compassion for Veterans. I met Steve Craven on a shuttle to a Red Cross event with US Defense Secretary Robert Gates. Steve kindly explained a little bit about what some airlines are doing to contribute to our active duty and veterans’ medical transportation needs. I was soon contacted by American Airlines to help them with awareness efforts of their own veterans initiatives.

I interviewed Captain Steve Blankenship, the Managing Director of Veterans Initiatives at American Airlines. Feel free to listen to the podcast or read a summary of our discussion below.

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Dr. Val: Tell me a little bit about yourself, Captain.

Blankenship:  Being a veteran myself (20 years with the US Cost Guard) a count it a real privilege to serve our veterans. During my first 8 years with the Coast Guard I was a helicopter rescue crewman doing search and rescue based out of Miami, Florida. I eventually went to navy flight training and retired from the military in 1991 and was hired to fly for American Airlines for the next 14 years. In 2004 I helped to launch their Veterans Initiative.

Dr. Val: Tell me about Operation Iraqi Children and Snowball Express.

Blankenship:  There are so many children who have never been in uniform, but who have paid the ultimate price of losing a mom or a dad in war as they defend our freedoms.  American Airlines is particularly proud to be supporting childrens’ initiatives. The Snowball Express program involves private flights around the country to pick up kids and their surviving parent to take them on a fun-filled trip during the difficult winter holiday season.

Actor Gary Sinise helped to co-found Operation Iraqi Children where we shipped over 25 tons of toys and educational materials to Iraq. Our troops were able to give out 10,000 individually wrapped gifts to young children in Iraq.

Dr. Val: What about American Airlines’ support of the iBot Mobility System for wounded veterans?

Blankenship: The iBot is a special kind of wheelchair (designed by the guy who created the Segway) that allows its user to sit at an eye level with someone standing next to them.  They can also climb stairs. To date we’ve raised over $700,000 to buy these iBot Mobility devices for our wounded warriors.

Dr. Val: What else is American Airlines doing for veterans?

Blankenship: We fly wounded warriors and their families on charter flights from Brooks Army base to Disney World. We have three dedicated “yellow ribbon” airplanes that we use to fly recovering service men and women to events so they can get out of their rehab centers for a period of time and have fun with their families. This kind of charity comes naturally to us because American Airlines was founded by a military veteran and over 10% of our current staff are either active duty military personnel or veterans.

Every day we go to work, we recognize that the right and privilege we have to fly our airplanes and transport our passengers was paid for by the men and women who wear the cloth of our nation. American Airlines is continually looking for ways to thank them and support the efforts of our military.

Dr. Val: How do military and their families find out more about your programs and services?

Blankenship: They can send me an email directly and I’ll make sure they’re referred to the right place.

Nurses And The Military: A Historical Perspective From Walter Reed

In honor of National Nurses Week, the National Museum of Health and Medicine hosted a discussion about the history of nursing at Walter Reed. Debbie Cox, former Army Nurse Corps Historian, initiated the conversation by describing what nursing was like at the turn of the 20th century. Steam-driven ambulances transported patients out of “mosquito-infested” Washington, DC to fresh-aired Fort McNair. A leading controversy of the time involved the intention of the hospital administrators to place the nurse baracks near the horse stables rather than the main hospital. In a dramatic twist, Jane Delano (cousin of Franklin D. Roosevelt) saved the nurses from relegation to the stables. However, it wasn’t until 1920 that nurses were given rank by the army.

Entry into nursing was through the Red Cross exclusively until the first nursing school was opened at Walter Reed in 1918. From there, nurses grew in numbers and prestige, until they became a cornerstone of medical research in the 1950s, leading the way in understanding how to reduce the spread of infections in the OR, decubitus ulcers in the hospital wards, and radiation damage related to nuclear war.

Jennifer Easley, a nurse who works in the pediatric intensive care unit at Walter Reed, described her experiences as a nurse leader for a team of soldiers in Iraq. She derived great satisfaction as an officer in her unit, and said that the team spirit and camaraderie was unlike anything she experienced in civilian nursing. She had this to say:

“I only made it 18 months as a civilian nurse. When I was called back to serve in the army, I had my paperwork in so fast you could hardly blink. I found out that in the private sector, no one ‘has your back.’ There’s no protection for those who raise safety concerns and nurses don’t have the authority to request back up in cases where units are dangerously understaffed.

I remember one day when several nurses called in sick and there weren’t enough of us to cover the children and babies in the ICU safely. I reported this to my nurse supervisor and she told me that maybe I wasn’t cut out for a challenging work environment. I was shocked, and really feared for the patients.

Another problem with private sector nursing is that there are glass ceilings. If you apply for a job as a staff nurse, you can’t work your way up to nurse manager. You’d have to leave that hospital and apply for a nurse manager position elsewhere. In the army, I had many more opportunities to contribute, grow, and lead.”

The final speaker was a nurse who returned from Iraq with head and neck cancer. He (LTC Patrick Ahearne) was an inpatient at Walter Reed for many months, losing 35 pounds and experiencing severe nausea, vomiting, and depression. At his lowest point, when he had lost hope of recovery and wanted to die, he was met with kindness by an experienced nurse who knew how to ask the right questions and reframe his perspective:

“This wonderful nurse stayed with me for 2 hours, watching me vomit and talking me through it. I remember her asking me what I’d learned about myself through my illness. I thought it was a strange, and medically irrelevant question – but it was just what I needed at the time. I realized how strong the human body can be, and the inner strength I had to endure my cancer. In those two hours nurse McLaughlin took me from wanting to die to wanting to live. She taught me that it was ok to be angry. It was ok to be sick.”

Many thanks to the unsung heroes out there who touch lives like nurse McLaughlin. We couldn’t do it without you.

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