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Nursing the Troops

Interview with Susan Luz, coauthor of <i>The Nightingale of Mosul: A Nurse’s Journey of Service, Struggle, and War</i>

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.

(Read an excerpt from The Nightingale of Mosul here.)

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.

Q. Did you work with the wounded?

A. I worked in the hospital when there were mass casualties. I took care of the “expectants.”

Q. How did you help someone expected to die?

A. I’d hold their hands, give morphine. A lot of our expectants were Iraqi civilians and Iraqi soldiers, and, naturally, the terrorists.

Q. Did you treat Iraqis differently from Americans?

A. I didn’t get Americans—they were in the emergency room until they died. The Iraqis would get triaged, and if it was clear they were going to die, I’d get them. They were never awake. But no, I didn’t treat them any differently from anyone else—I took an oath. What we feel inside about the terrorists is a different story. If you saw one blow up your friend, you might think differently. But I wouldn’t do anything different with that person.

Q. How did you boost morale?

A. We’d have barbecues, card tournaments, movie nights. We’d dress up and go to the hospital on Halloween, or on St. Patrick’s Day—just to let the wounded soldiers and civilians feel a little bit of normalcy. There was a time and place for everything, of course—if the helicopters came over and you were having a cookout, you put your things away and headed for the hospital, because it meant there were casualties coming in.

Q. Where did that desire to help people’s frame of mind come from?

A. Considering the age I was—and I couldn’t have children—those were my boys and girls over there, and I wanted to take care of them. We were the MASH unit on the base. So in true M*A*S*H* style, I’d be Klinger. On the show, if anyone needed something, ask Klinger! In Iraq, you asked Col. Luz. They’d say, “We need furniture for our offices,” and I’d go out with my specialist looking for things people had abandoned—blankets, desks, couches.

Q. And they felt comfortable asking a colonel for such things?

A. They used to call me “the ambassador,” because they knew I could talk to people. The enlisted would say, “Wow, she’s a colonel and she’s talking to me?” And I wasn’t afraid of the generals—I got them to let me start a beauty parlor. Guys have barbers, I told them. “Why can’t we have a beauty parlor?”

Q. How did you get away with that?

A. Basically, I can get anything I want—not because I’m female—but because I have a way with people. And I’d barter. When we were inaugurating the hospital, they asked the [mess hall] to make a cake, and the guy refused, claiming they needed more notice. I got a cake in two hours.

Q. How?

A. Because I had all these DVDs from HBO! I’d gotten to be friends with one of the people on Band of Brothers. So I’d say, “Look, I’ll give you this DVD of The Sopranos or Six Feet Under.”

Q. Any other triumphs?

A. One of the steak houses had 160 steaks to give away. Who did they give it to? Me! We brought them up to the wounded soldiers.

Q. What does a gift like that do for morale?

A. We grilled them up and brought them to the soldiers, and oh my God, they were so happy.

Q. What did you miss while when you were in Iraq?

A. I missed my wonderful husband, George, and being with friends and family. But I developed my own family there.

Q. Families are formed during wartime?

A. Sure. I had a second family there, my own band of brothers, and especially my band of sisters—the other nurses I served with.

Q. Do you stay family after everyone goes home?

A. My unit, of course. And I stay in touch with others I connected with from other places. We talk on the phone a lot. We send CARE packages to a good friend who’s a nurse-anesthetist in Afghanistan all the time. The original band of brothers got together every year for a reunion. We talked about doing that, but right now everybody’s got two war zones going on. Maybe in five years.

Q. What message do you want to send with this book?

A. I hope this book will show other women especially that we’re important, and it doesn’t matter what age you are. There are people in their 30s who complain about everything and think they’re old. Not me. I get tired, of course. But I just think there’s so much to life.

Rob Gurwitt lives in Norwich, Vt.