Published November 9, 2018
To be ‘in charge’ is certainly not only to carry out the proper measures yourself but to see that everyone else does so too. –Florence Nightingale
Susan Grinslade’s trajectory to a 17-year military career is not typical – not that any one veteran or service member’s path to service, or in service, is typical – but she did not begin the way that many civilians imagine this type of journey would begin.
She was not 18 when she signed up; she did join to find her calling. Grinslade already had a direction, professionally; she was a nurse with master’s level degrees in education and medical-surgical nursing.
While Grinslade was working in hospice, she and a fellow nurse did consulting with the Army on palliative care. With the seed planted during that project, she later made the decision to join the Navy Reserves and was commissioned as a lieutenant in the Nurse Corps.
“I loved my time in the military,” Grinslade says. “I have done things and gone places and met with people and done things that I would have never had that opportunity to do.”
Grinslade was deployed on special active duty several times during her military career. As a reservist, she predominantly worked in stateside Navy hospitals, working on units or in administration. One of her active duty deployments was to the Naval Medical Command in Washington, DC, where she attended Senate hearings and wrote briefs for the Nurse Corps admiral. At the time, the Senate chair was John Glenn.
“When military members go to the Hill for hearings, they are not allowed to be uniform because it creates a presence,” Grinslade explains. “But since John Glenn was the chair of the committee, he knew who was military, so I did get a chance to meet him.”
Grinslade was also deployed on special active duty to Japan for four weeks. Her job there was to help develop standard operating procedures for a rapid deployment of a military hospital and trauma response team that could be alerted and ready within 12 hours, with the ability to sustain health care services for individuals experiencing traumatic injuries.
Her experience as an educator and in leadership roles made her a highly effective training officer, and her experience as a trauma nurse specialist prepared her for the potential of what might she might see in a warzone – this would be the next chapter of her military career.
“When Kuwait was invaded by Iraq in 1990 – on August 2nd – my unit was tapped within 24 hours for deployment.”
Grinslade was recalled for active duty in support of the Persian Gulf War – she landed in Bahrain in late December, where she was the officer in charge of perioperative services for the newly-activated Fleet Hospital 6.
The Persian Gulf War, codenamed Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm, was an international conflict precipitated by the August 1990 Iraqi invasion of Kuwait, a major supplier of oil to the United States. This action posed a threat to neighboring Saudi Arabia, another major oil supplier. During this conflict, more than 500,000 U.S. troops were stationed in the Middle East.
Fleet Hospital 6 was assembled near Alwardi, Bahrain, just a few kilometers from the forward fighting edge.
“We constructed a 500 bed hospital, basically from the ground up, which was primarily tent structures with what we call mods,” Grinslade says. “I was in charge of the ICU and the perioperative recovery room. We had to put together all of our respirators and empty out supplies – we also built out a sort of bomb shelter with sandbags.”
The fleet hospital consisted of about 20 units, including an OR suite, ICU, recovery room, psychiatric/mental health units, and a morgue. Grinslade was the officer in charge in the recovery room and ICU, with 17 nurses, including three nurse anesthetists, and 12 corpsman assigned to her.
Because the fleet hospitals treated, in addition to coalition soldiers, non-combatants and others in the area, they had to remain cognizant of possible threats to their own safety when bringing in these patients. Grinslade recalls one experience with an enemy fighter who was brought in for care – in these cases, the individual is brought to an area built out with sandbags as a precaution in case the patient had explosives on their person.
The stresses associated with constructing a hospital in an unfamiliar part of the world, in a combat zone, were compounded by air raids the fleet hospital experienced three to five times per week. Grinslade says that the uncertainty and disruption was particularly challenging.
“When Scud missiles were launched in our area, we had to put on our gas masks, in less than 10 seconds, and our flak jackets,” she says. “It could be any time – you could be asleep, but when that siren comes on you had to get ready in case there was gas deployed.”
While Grinslade, naturally a leader and educator, kept her units in good order, the experience had an undeniable long-term impact. She says it was just two years ago when it dawned on her that her first thought was no longer “incoming” when she heard the sound of a helicopter.
Her experiences also had an enduring positive impact on her outlook on life and her future.
“I became acutely aware that you cannot predict life, that life is too short to put things off,” Grinslade says. “If you know what you want to do, you need to do it because you never know what’s going to happen. I highly value my time in the military. It made me a different person in that I realized that little things are little things. You can’t sweat the small stuff.”
With two master’s degrees in tow, she was never quite certain that she wanted to pursue a PhD. Having this newfound perspective, Grinslade returned home in March and began working on her doctorate the following fall.
“One of the core values for any nurse is altruism, which is service to others outside yourself.”
Grinslade, who left the Navy Nurse Corps having achieved the rank of lieutenant commander, says this value was instilled in her throughout her life by her military family. Her father, an Army veteran, and her uncles served during World War II. One of her uncles, a Navy veteran, was present at the bombing of Pearl Harbor and was an Air Force One pilot, and another uncle, a Seabee, was in the forced march at Corregidor. One uncle also served in Korea. Her brother is a Navy veteran as well.
Though none of them talked much about their service, and were very humble about their contributions, Grinslade knew her family held an unspoken sense of pride. Their call to service, no doubt, influenced their familial focus on altruism, and Grinslade’s calling as a dedicated nurse, devoted educator and loyal service member.
While the vast majority of veterans are equally humble about their sacrifices, and many combat veterans have great difficulty discussing their time in service, Grinslade says there are many simple ways civilians can honor veterans.
“I want people to be appreciative of our veterans and to realize that the freedoms we enjoy have been achieved and sustained on the blood of our servicemen,” Grinslade says.
She recalls, emotionally, the experience of Vietnam veterans as they returned home from combat.
“They were spit upon; they were yelled at; they were called terrible names. They didn’t come back in their uniforms.”
While Vietnam was a wildly unpopular war, the treatment of the veterans returning home was another devastating aspect of that time in history. Some of the servicemen deployed to the Persian Gulf were also Vietnam veterans who feared a similar reaction upon their return home.
“I think we can do more here in the States to honor our veterans,” says Grinslade. “If you see a veteran or service member, thank them for their service. Step to the side; honor them.”
“Acknowledge the sacrifice. If you have an opportunity to do something for a vet, do it.”
Susan Grinslade earned her nursing diploma from Barnes Hospital School of Nursing in St. Louis, Missouri, beginning her career as a staff nurse in that same hospital where she cut her teeth in nursing school. A few years later, Grinslade headed to Southourn Illinois University at Edwardsville, Illinois, earning her bachelor’s degree in nursing, a Master of Science in education, and later her MS in nursing with a medical-surgical specialty. Grinslade earned her PhD in nursing science from the University of Illinois at Chicago.
During her time in Illinois, Grinslade worked as a nursing instructor; she was also an education director, adjunct faculty member, and professor, as well as a program director, and is now an undergraduate programs chair and clinical professor at the University at Buffalo School of Nursing.