Fly, fight, win

How an intelligence officer became a globally minded, person-centered nurse

three US Air Force service members in front of a fighter plane

Campbell is currently a UBSON DNP student and teaching assistant and works in the Neuro Surgical ICU at Buffalo General. (Pictured from left: Marie Campbell, Cara Jones and Amber Jacobs)

There are moments that are forever etched into the hearts and minds of nations and individuals – those moments that you cannot forget. The ones where you can recall where you were, what you were doing, what you felt. The moments that mark a clear distinction of before and after.

Marie Campbell experienced this kind of moment, like many did, when she heard about the 2001 attacks on the World Trade Center.  She was typing away in her keyboarding class as a high school sophomore when she heard the news – and that moment was the first of two that changed the trajectory of her life.

The second moment was irrevocably connected to the first. It took place just weeks later in a Connecticut pick-your-own apples orchard, where Campbell worked weekends. On that fall day, a customer told her that the United States had begun airstrikes in Afghanistan, the start of a 13-year long war – Campbell knew in that instant that our world would never be the same. It is ingrained in her memory, as it is ingrained in the memory of our entire nation.

In those moments, Campbell made a major decision about her future. With only two family members, her grandfathers, serving in the U.S. Army in the 1950s, her decision to enlist was not cemented by tradition – it was cemented by her sense of duty.

Although Campbell knew she would serve in the military, she also knew she wanted the college experience. So, she pursued the best of both worlds. Campbell joined the Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) at the University of Connecticut, where she majored in Spanish with the idea that her expanded communications skills would benefit her in her service.

“[Nurses] often interact with people when they are at their worst, so maintaining their dignity is key to helping them heal. ”
Marie Campbell

She was right.

Campbell was commissioned out of Air Force ROTC Detachment 115. The first stop on her post-ROTC military career was Goodfellow Air Force Base in San Angelo, Texas, where she enrolled in an intelligence officer course. After about a year in training, Campbell received her first assignment: the 694th Intelligence, Surveillance and Reconnaissance Group (ISRG) at Osan Air Base in the Republic of Korea.

“I had never been to Korea – it was like landing in another planet,” Campbell recalls. “The smells, the crowds, the language were all so very foreign. I adjusted, however, and came to love it. I had to travel back to the U.S. several times in my two years there, and every time I flew back to Korea it felt more and more like I was going ‘home’.”

In Korea, she shouldered operations and administrative duties as an intelligence officer and a flight commander – early on, she says, there were challenges. At just 24 years old, Campbell, as an intelligence officer, supervised more than 70 people ranging in age from 19 to 50+. As a flight commander, she encountered unique issues with her airmen. Campbell explains that military leadership entails a responsibility for the “whole person” – both professional and personal lives, from financial to marital issues. This can seem daunting for someone so young.

Campbell thrived, though.

Her next assignment was the U.S. Embassy in Bogota, Colombia, in 2011. Here, she worked with individuals from every branch of the military, the State Department and several other government agencies – this, Campbell says, taught her how to manage competing interests and prioritization of assets.

 “The work was exciting because it was not as traditional as Korea, or as high-visibility as OIF/OEF.* Our mission in Bogota presented a unique set of challenges you don’t see in other places.”

Campbell, then a Captain, was also a collections manager, a position she compares to a triage nurse – but instead of prioritizing patients, she prioritized intelligence requirements. When a member of the intelligence community needed information, her job was to rank the requests based on justification and work with available intelligence assets to determine how obtain that information.

Marie Campbell in uniform

Pictured: Marie Campbell

Aim higher, for our patients

In December 2011, Campbell and her now husband were engaged in the U.S. After the holiday, Campbell returned to Colombia and her husband was deployed to Afghanistan. They were apart for nearly a year with limited contact and decided it was time to transition to reserves and start civilian careers. This transition can prove difficult, but Campbell saw nursing as a clear path.

Health care and the military, Campbell says, attract the same types of people.

“Both careers fields are ‘high stakes,’ and you are responsible for other peoples’ lives. I am a bit of an adrenaline junkie, and I like work where you don’t know exactly what to expect from hour to hour. When I decided to leave the military, nursing was the natural choice.”

Campbell left Bogota and moved to Akron, New York, with her husband in 2013. She began prerequisites for UBSON’s accelerated baccalaureate program and started working on the observation unit at Buffalo General. Emboldened by the leadership opportunities she experienced as a service member, Campbell applied for early admission to the doctor of nursing practice program specializing in the adult/gerontology field.

“I chose adult-gerontology because of my undergraduate preceptorship experience at the Buffalo VA,” says Campbell. “Medical conditions become much more complicated as you age – I am intrigued by the unique challenges adults with comorbidities pose.”

Campbell says the military’s prioritization of respect and integrity influences her interactions with patients and co-workers – these qualities, she believes, are “essential to every human relationship.”

“[Nurses] must have respect for the people [they] work with because a hostile work environment can be lethal. [We must also] respect our patients. We often interact with people when they are at their worst, so maintaining their dignity is key to helping them heal.

Integrity, Campbell says, is a little more complicated. “It can simply mean truthfulness, which is a critical aspect of patient-centered care. Integrity also means being whole and intact. To care for others, we have to care for ourselves -- the expression ‘You can’t pour from an empty cup’ comes to mind when I think about integrity in nursing.”

Campbell’s military experience also informs her cultural consciousness and empathy when working with people from other cultures. She explains that while in Colombia, she was hospitalized with food poisoning and severe dehydration. Though Campbell is proficient in Spanish, she says being so ill and exhausted made it much more difficult to communicate in a non-native language.

“Complex illnesses are hard for people to understand unless they’ve had some sort of medical training,” Campbell says. “Imagine trying to understand when none of your doctors or nurses speak your language, and no one is able to explain or answer your questions because they can’t find a translator. It is heartbreakingly frustrating.”

Campbell says that it is because of this experience that she is an avid supporter of proper translation services in health care. She is also cognizant of the unique difficulties faced by immigrants as they navigate the American health care system.

As a veteran and a nurse, she is also more aware of – and grateful for – the advantages people in the United States enjoy, especially in terms of basic needs.

“I recognize how lucky we are to have the technology and medical expertise we have in this country. When comparing the U.S. to other places I’ve been, the first word that comes to mind is ‘convenient.’ We certainly have our challenges and room to improve, but compared to other countries, we have it easy. Access to food, shelter and medical care is at our fingertips.

“We are very lucky to live where we do, and I will never take that for granted.”

*Afghanistan: Operation Enduring Freedom (OEF) / Iraq: Operation Iraqi Freedom (OIF)

-SARAH GOLDTHRITE