In 1971, as she was nearing the end of nursing school in Rhode Island, Susan Corry decided that she wanted to join the Army and go to Vietnam to work with wounded soldiers. Her father refused to give his permission. He had fought in World War II at the Battle of the Bulge, and though he didn’t tell Susan this at the time, he had seen what could happen to nurses in war zones.
But 35 years after her father forbade it, Susan—by then married and using her husband’s last name, Luz—wound up in a war zone anyway while most of her contemporaries were at home plotting retirement. After time in the Peace Corps and while working at an inner-city Providence high school, she joined an Army Reserve unit based in Massachusetts and eventually rose to the rank of full colonel. In 2006, her unit, the 399th Combat Support Hospital, was activated to go to Iraq. At the age of 56, Col. Luz went through Army basic training at Fort McCoy, Wis., to prepare for shipping out to Mosul, Iraq.
After 15 months, she returned to Rhode Island and her husband, George Luz Jr., son of one of the “band of brothers”—the company within the 101st Airborne Division immortalized by Stephen Ambrose’s book and the HBO series of the same name. When a writer named Marcus Brotherton, who had written several books about the Band of Brothers, first came calling to suggest a book about her experiences, she told him she wasn’t interested. Eventually, though, she agreed, and the result is The Nightingale of Mosul: A Nurse’s Journey of Service, Struggle, and War. Luz, who is now 60 and just put in for retirement from the Reserves, spoke with the AARP Bulletin about her experiences.
Q. You live this eventful life, and in the second half of your 50s, you’re called up for the first time to go to a war zone.
A. I’ve been on a lot of humanitarian missions with the Reserves that were scary. And on humanitarian missions, you don’t carry weapons! I was in Guatemala this past August with some reserve units. A guy with a machete came into the women’s barracks in the middle of the night—because the Guatemalan guards were sleeping. One of the girls in the unit saw him, woke me up and said he was staring at everybody. Turned out, he was there training to be a Guatemalan special forces soldier—and they found out he was mentally ill. He could have been a mass murderer!
Q. Did you ever feel like your life was in danger in Iraq?
A. Absolutely! The fourth day I was in Mosul, we had one of the largest mortar attacks. My counterpart got hit, almost died and had to be medevaced out. And anytime I was on a plane I worried. But you couldn’t let yourself get too crazy, because after all, you were in a war zone.
Q. What was that like?
A. While I was there, it was the “bloody surge.” We lost some soldiers from our higher command. They were shooting planes out of the sky, so I was even more nervous. I’m a worrywart. I’m a devout Catholic and believe if something’s going to happen, it’s going to happen—though I’m not taking any chances.
Q. You went to Iraq as a community health nurse. What does that mean in a war zone?
A. My big job was to go out to all the units.
Q. And do what?
A. I’d encourage the soldiers to come to the hospital to get healthy so they could go back out into the war zone. We did all kinds of immunizations, taught them how to keep healthy. And we had to make sure everything was safe. It’s all about developing community health and wellness.
Q. What are the worst health habits soldiers have?
A. Some things they have no control over. There were chemicals all over. We’d be very concerned about what they were exposed to when they burned trash. But probably the biggest problem was that soldiers picked up the habit of smoking. I’d try to get them into smoking cessation clinics, but it’s the camaraderie—there’s a lot of people hanging out there by the smoking pit.
Q. Any others?
A. A lot of the soldiers work out, but they eat those MREs, so some of them would develop weight problems. And if you’re on the base, you’re not burning off as many calories as the guys out in the field, who’ve got flak jackets on and are sweating bullets and are kicking down doors.