By Sandra Miller
For the Transcript
Air Force Nurse Lisa Larity flies off to Kandahar, Afghanistan, breathing in the nauseating fumes of a fuel bladder for long-range flight into what she called a Charlie Foxtrot – code for chaotic and disorganized.
They keep the engine running while they pull wounded soldiers aboard, only to be told a light on the wing was burned out and needs to be replaced. They take care of the wounded while being grounded for five hours, cold and anxious about waiting around at a base that had been attacked the day before. They have no intelligence reports on what to expect from the enemy. Finally they get their orders to return, and they all breathe a sigh of relief.
Flying in and out of war-torn countries, saving the lives of wounded soldiers, battling hurricane floods – it sounds like the life of a fictional action movie hero.
However, Winthrop native Lisa Larity is a real-life hero, a pistol-packing Air Force nurse whose missions of mercy to Iraq and Afghanistan whisks injured military to safety in Germany, and also saves enemies’ lives.
It’s no wonder that when she e-mails her friends and family, she talks about how tired she is. “Long days and flights and a lot of trying to catch up on missed sleep,” is how she sums up what she does. A few weeks ago, she wrote about trying to catch up on sleep after flying two missions back to back. “But all in all, it’s still a great job to have,” she wrote.
Larity was raised and educated in Winthrop, was a Winthrop Youth Soccer League player and varsity at Winthrop High School (WHS), where she graduated in 2000. Since she was 6 years old, she knew she wanted to be a nurse, and that’s what she did, studying nursing at the University of New Hampshire.
However, not many in her family knew about her military ambitions, which she said she had since middle school. Both of her grandfathers served in World War II, in the Army and the Navy; two uncles served in the Air Force, a great-aunt was a World War II Marine, and a few cousins served in the Navy and Marines. But none were career military, nor officers. Larity wanted to be an officer, and tried to enroll in ROTC. “My motivation to join the military was something that came as quite a shock to many who knew me growing up,” she said. “I was shy and quiet and just did not seem like the type to take this type of role and lifestyle on.”
At first, she was denied an ROTC scholarship, but Larity is persistent. She did a work study for the Army and Air Force ROTC programs, and spoke to the commander, a colonel, about joining the Air Force program. He told her she’d never get in, because she needed a waiver for some eye operations she had as a young child, and he wouldn’t give it to her.
“So I waited until the next year, when a new commander would be in his spot,” she said. “This new commander was the complete opposite. He told me that he would do everything within his powers to get me my waiver.”
After three years, she got her waiver, and received a nursing scholarship through ROTC. “My junior year, I raised my right hand for the first time and began my contract with the military,” she said.
After graduating in 2004, she was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Air Force, and reported to Keesler Medical Center on Keesler Air Force Base in Biloxi, Miss.
“I had hopes of one day becoming a flight nurse for the Air Force, but knew that I would have to start off in the hospital to work on my skills,” she said.
She began as a medical/surgical ward nurse, and while she was on duty, Hurricane Katrina smashed into Biloxi. Her hospital was up the street from Biloxi Beach.
“The water kept rising, and before we knew it, our parking lot was covered, to the point that we could not see our cars, and there was now water in our basement,” she said. “We still had patients in the hospital that had to be taken care of. It now became a game to us. How inventive could we get to take care of the patients with now no power, no pharmacy due to the water damage and also no dining facility, also due to the water in the basement?”
After two days, the patients were transferred, but the staff stayed on for four more days without food or air conditioning. “I was fortunate where I only lost my car in the storm to water damage,” she said.
A month later, she was deployed to Landsthul Regional Medical Center in Germany, where she spent six months on an orthopedics/neurological ward for military injured during Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. She also was exposed to the Aeromedical Evacuation process, with Marines, soldiers, airmen, and sailors flown in.
“It was such an amazing feeling to have a military member, who sometimes was involved in an accident in the past 24 hours and were alive, when even just a few years ago, they would not have made it or would not have had the good outcome that they had,” she said.
They sent her back to the Biloxi Hospital’s emergency department (ED), where she found her niche. “I love the adrenaline rush that you get when someone is rushed into the ED and it is your job, along with the other staff, to figure out what is causing their problems,” she said.
But then a call came in fall 2007 that a captain she had worked with became ill, and within days she was on a plane to a hospital in Bagram, Afghanistan.
She took care of wounded US military and contractors, NATO coalition forces, the Afghan military and police, and local nationals ranging from 6 months old to the elderly. She saw injuries from land mines, gunshot wounds, and blasts from improvised explosive devices, and illnesses the Afghan government couldn’t cure in their local hospitals.
Among the most difficult patients to treat, however, were the enemy prisoners of war.
“This I think was by far the hardest part of the job,” she said. “Here I was, face to face with a man who had been injured by our forces after they either killed some of our troops or were planning to hurt or kill our people. We would have to go into the room sanitized, which meant no names or rank on our uniforms so we could protect ourselves and our families from being contacted by the Taliban, which I was told had happened there a few years prior.”
She was finishing up her military stint when, last April, she received new orders to report to Texas for flight school, her dream assignment. She took a two-week course to learn about survival, evasion and resistance during a plane crash. “It was an amazing experience filled with lots of dirt, sweat, and sleeping on the ground,” she said. “Minimal food was given and we had to evade for a few days. Luckily, my flight never got caught!”
She moved to Pope Air Force Base in North Carolina, was promoted to captain, and was assigned to the 43rd Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, where she trained to become a fully qualified flight nurse. In October, she was on a three-week mission to Afghanistan and Iraq to pick up the wounded.
In January, she was off again, to Al Udeid, Qatar. Mostly she does “milk runs” through Iraq, traveling to various bases to transfer patients for transport to Germany.
But her squadron is also able to do rare Alpha Alerts – they have 10 minutes to respond to the aircraft and be in the air within an hour. “This is reserved for a serious injury that may result in the loss of life, limb or eyesight,” she said. Luckily, they haven’t responded to one yet. But of the 22 missions she had in her first three weeks at the base, many were Bravo alerts, giving them only three hours between being paged and airbound.
They mostly wait around with pagers to go on what they call “Mercy missions” that can keep them busy for 14 to 24 hours at a time. What’s initially one stop for a patient turns into five stops for 14 patients. “It has been very fast paced,” she said.
Recently they launched five missions in about 36 hours. Every flier in her squadron was out on a mission, in Iraq, Afghanistan and Germany. “We are starting to see some major injuries, along with the everyday illnesses and injuries,” she said.
In case she’s stuck for a day or two waiting for a plane in enemy territory, she also carries a gun, and wears her “battle rattle” – helmet and flak vest. The Afghanis and Iraqis don’t respect the Geneva Convention, which gives POWs certain rights while in captivity. “These days, they would not even consider doing that, so we are allowed the right to protect ourselves,” she said. “Carrying a weapon, it was strange at first. We are considered non-combatants as medics, which means that we are not supposed to carry weapons or engage in any military fight. However, we are also considered air crew, which does require a weapon. “
Thankfully, although she lands in dangerous areas, she hasn’t faced real danger yet.
“It is very common to hear that a plane was shot at or a mortar hit the flight line at the base that you are going to,” she said. “Honestly, it gets a little easier after hearing that brief a few times, but it is always in the back of your mind that there has been recent activity and that it is a possible threat to you.”
She is amazed at the job she is doing, and the resourceful people with whom she works. “It definitely takes a special person to do the job that we do,” she said. “We are pushed to the limit on every mission and it is tiring. But even after a horrible day, we can all be thankful for having the opportunity to take care of our wounded brothers and sisters. No other job could give me the satisfaction that I get, knowing that I have helped get the sick and wounded to a safer area and a higher level of medical care.”
And she never tires of seeing the American flag that they hang on every mission in the aircraft. “It is there to remind ourselves and our patients of why we are all here, doing the jobs that we are doing,” she said. “I have a flag that I got before my first real world mission and it stays in my bag. That way, when I am done with this job, I can say that the flag was with me on every mission. It honestly still can bring tears to my eyes when I see that flag hanging over my patients. It suddenly makes all of the long days and frustration of being away from home worth every minute of it.”
Home ties and her future
She also loves the letters she gets from Winthrop. Lisa Larity is a frequent penpal of Richard Honan, owner of Honan Signs and a Vietnam veteran who sends care packages to her and other soldiers overseas to keep their spirits up. He also sent her a copy of the Winthrop paper, in which her father placed a 50th birthday wish to her mother. “Everyone had e-mailed me about it but this is the first time I got to see it,” she said.
Larity also encourages local Fort Banks first-graders to write to a soldier named Jesse. She plans to write to a local fifth-grader, Julia McIntyre, who had written her.
“It helps us get through the days when we know that the people back home are standing behind all that we do,” she said. “It brings me to tears thinking about how great everyone has been from Winthrop. You all support us in all that we are doing.”
She loves her job, but she’s thinking about what she’ll do next, when her assignment ends at Pope Air Force Base in three years. By then, she may be ready to come home.
If yet another high-flying assignment doesn’t lure her into signing up for another round of duty, she’s thinking of working in a Boston-area emergency room, and maybe serving with the Reserves or Guard to remain on AeroEvac. “By getting out, I would have the best of both worlds,” she said. Either way, she wants to track down that colonel at UNH who told her not to bother with ROTC. “I have been on active duty for almost five years, have passed a flight physical, received my wings as a flight nurse and am an active flyer. If only I could find that man and show him what I have done with my career,” she said.