Hitting the Ground Running

Army Veteran Finds His Discipline in the Military, and His Calling in Nursing

Alec Diaz in uniform with parachute pack

Published November 9, 2018

“Everyone in the military has a different experience. Each story is so unique – if you’re talking to a veteran, don’t assume that because you know one story, you know them all.”
Alec Diaz, RN to BS Student
University at Buffalo School of Nursing

“I’ve jumped out of a plane 20 times.”

A quick smile flashes across Alec Diaz’s face as he recalls his active duty time in the United States Army.

He continues, modestly, “We jumped from between 800 to 1,000 feet. Not very high at all.”

It’s safe to say that jumping from an airplane, at any height, is daunting (or terrifying) to most civilians. This was part of Diaz’s job, though, as a member of the elite 82nd Airborne Division out of Fort Bragg in North Carolina.

The 82nd Airborne Division in an airborne infantry division that serves as the nucleus of the Global Response Force, and is described by the US Army as the primary fighting arm of the XVIII Airborne Corps. They specialize in joint forcible entry operations, strategically deploying to conduct parachute assaults within 18 hours of notification. They are precise and purposeful, securing key objectives for US military operations. In 2007 when President Bush sent a surge of troops to Iraq, one of the brigades from the 82nd Airborne deployed as part of the Global Response Force.

Diaz and his fellow soldiers conducted static line jumps – each parachute is rigged to the aircraft on a static line so that the parachute opens automatically in about three to five seconds. As part of the cannon crew, Diaz’s focus was on field artillery.

“We would rig our Howitzers to be dropped out of airplanes,” Diaz explains. “During these operations, we fly over a designated area and drop our Howitzer; the airplane circles, then everyone drops. When we get on the ground, everyone goes to the Howitzer and we then shoot live rounds.”

They would do this, Diaz says, in the pitch black of night at times; some of these practice operations included 2,000 soldiers jumping from 20 airplanes flying in strategic formation, with everyone organizing on the ground in less than 15 minutes after the first jumper exits the aircraft.

Though Diaz, who joined the Army at the age of 18, was never deployed, he was part of the Global Response Force ready brigade that constantly sharpened their soldiering skills and participated in pre-deployment exercises and mock deployments in preparation for a potential call to duty.

Army strong, in civilian life

In 2015, Diaz moved back to Buffalo, his hometown, as he transitioned into the Army National Guard. With a lifelong interest in fitness and nutrition that was amplified by his time in the Army, he had a natural affinity for nursing. He pursued an associate’s degree in nursing at Trocaire College, and, thanks to his military experience, had grown the maturity, focus and dedication necessary to make him successful in nursing school – and later as a registered nurse.

He eventually transferred to the Air Force Reserves with a desire to become a nurse in their service. As part of the requirements for military nurses to become officers, Diaz set out to earn his bachelor’s degree in nursing from the UB through the RN to BS program.

Alec Diaz in Army uniform

 “I think my military experience is the reason I made it through nursing school. I wasn’t a good student at all in high school,” Diaz says, shaking his head. “I wasn’t failing every class, but I was a C, sometimes B student. I struggled with maturity – knowing how to manage my time, prioritizing. All those things I learned from the military.”

A more focused student than in his high school years, Diaz dedicated himself to his studies, committing the time necessary to ensure success. He says he had a clear goal in mind, and treated college like it was his job.

As a student, Diaz began working in the Oral Maxillofacial Surgery Clinic in the University at Buffalo School of Dental Medicine, then briefly as a graduate clinic nurse, before he took on a position as a critical care nurse at Buffalo General Hospital. His time in the military equipped him for the stressful circumstances nurses face in critical care settings.

“Something I learned from the military is to not focus so much on what has already happened, but to adapt to the situation.”

Though the level of responsibility nurses have can, understandably, fluster new nurses, Diaz uses the confidence and focus he found in the military to react calmly and logically to situations he encounters in his work.

“Many times during my military training as a cannon crew member, our crew would be thrown a curveball,” Diaz says. “We might have seven guys, then we’re given the scenario that one of our guys died, so we figure out a new route to tackle the problem.”

Similarly, in his role as a nurse, Diaz trusts his education and stays focused on the task. His military background also prepared him for the lifestyle and demands of a nursing career – though a 12 or 13 hour shift in a hospital can be very stressful, Diaz reflects on his active duty time for a bit of perspective on the day-to-day challenges he faces.

“There were days in the Army where we would go 10 days in the field and I would just want to sleep in a bed,” says Diaz. “At least that’s one thing I know I’m getting for sure when I’m at work. I’m going home tonight. I can sleep in my bed; I can shower; I can stop and eat if I want. That’s something I really appreciate. The small stuff.”

Just one story

Diaz grew up in great admiration of his father, who served 24 years in the Army National Guard and was deployed to Iraq. He looked up to his brother, an Army infantry officer who was deployed to Afghanistan, and to his cousins who served.

“Everyone in the military has a different experience. Each story is so unique – if you’re talking to a veteran, don’t assume that because you know one story, you know them all.”

Diaz explains that often civilians don’t understand that one’s role in the military, and whether someone has seen combat, makes each individual experience distinct.

Alec Diaz posing with fiance Shelby

Alec Diaz with his fiance Shelby

No matter the role, all military members begin their service by making a difficult sacrifice. Diaz’s fiancé, Shelby, lived in Buffalo for a year during his time at Ft. Bragg – they were only able to see each other for about 30 days during that time period.

“Being a part of the military is a great experience,” Diaz explains, “but you give up a lot to do it. If your family member serves, you can feel that sacrifice too. You’re away from your family and friends. You set aside going on vacations, golfing, or whatever hobby. You know that no holiday is guaranteed.”

Diaz treasures the connection he has to other military veterans, and says he is humbled to be a part of that community of highly intelligent, hardworking and selfless individuals. He is especially respectful of our combat veterans and their unique experiences and sacrifices.

He acknowledges that some veterans want to share their stories, while others do not. No matter the perspective, Diaz appreciates military veteran programs and resources that are available to help veterans maintain their comradery. He lights up as he recalls his time as a right winger in a hockey program sponsored by the Veterans Association and the Buffalo Sabres, his hometown NHL team.

“I got to play on a hockey team with other veterans,” he says. “Programs like these are so beneficial.”

As Diaz continues to navigate life after active duty, remaining committed to service in the Air Force Reserves, he also has his sights set on the next phase of his nursing career. His ultimate goal is to become a nurse anesthetist. He is focused on achieving this goal – he was just hired on the cardiovascular ICU at Mercy Hospital of Buffalo. He plans to also earn CCRN certification, master the GRE and procure strong letters of recommendation to earn his spot in UB School of Nursing’s nurse anesthetist program.

Diaz’s foundation in the military has him off to a great start.

“I’m still working to build myself up, little by little.”

-SARAH GOLDTHRITE