Gloria Vignone admits to feeling “bittersweet” about her tour as a nurse in Iraq back in 2006-07.
“Sometimes when you are here, you want to be there, and vice versa,” the Franklin, Ma. native was saying earlier this month. “The camaraderie with your fellow soldiers is unbelievable. All we saw were trauma cases over there, a lot of blood and amputated limbs. We had one soldier who lost 60 units of blood and he lived. His buddies came in and donated blood to save his life. To know that you helped save a soldier’s life is a feeling you never forget.”
Now a full Colonel in the Army Reserves, Vignone is employed in civilian life as a nurse who works as a quality improvement educator at Sturdy Memorial Hospital in Attleboro. She spends one weekend per month with her reserve unit and 14-29 days on active duty each year. Her military assignment currently is at Fort Devens, Ma., where she serves as interim commander of the 399th Combat Support Hospital.
Vignone was living in Johnston, R.I. back in 1988, possessor of a Master’s Degree in Nursing, when she made a crucial life decision.
“I joined the Army Reserve in November of 1988,” she recalled. “The reason I joined? I was thinking about another income and didn’t know if Social Security was going to be around. I didn’t discuss my decision with anyone. My mother was upset when I told her. My father thought it was great. He is a retired World War II veteran.
“Nothing was going on in the world when I joined the Army,” Vignone said. “We were in between wars. My recruiter said, ‘Don’t worry. You will not have to go to war.’”
Vignone went into the Army with the rank of First Lieutenant, based on her Master’s Degree. She volunteered for a peacekeeping mission in Kosovo in 2001 during the conflict between neighboring countries Serbia, Albania and Yugoslovia.
“I had never seen injuries like the ones we saw in Kosovo,” said Vignone, who worked as head nurse of an intermediate care ward. “We saw heads bashed in, people all disfigured. It was a war zone and there was brutal fighting going on. Sometimes, we got caught in the middle. We always went places under armed guard.
“We were in Kosovo when 9/11 happened,” Vignone added. “We had two weeks left in our mission before going home. My brother Tony lived in New York City and it took some time before I learned he was okay.”
The innocent world of 1988 had changed drastically over the 13 years since Vignone joined the Army Reserves. The tragedy of 9/11 signaled the beginning of an ongoing war against terrorism launched by the Bush Administration.
Vignone was activated for Iraq in 2006.
“I was originally stationed in Mosul,” she said. “When we got off the plane, the place was under mortar attack. That was our wakeup call. I knew we weren’t in Kansas anymore! We would get mortared three or four times a week, usually around 3 in the morning. We had several mass casuality situations in which at times we were doing surgery in the Intensive Care Unit. We couldn’t keep up with the demand of wounded patients that needed the OR and these were all types of patients including, U S soldiers, POWs and civilians.
“The wounded came in by ambulance,” Vignone continued. “After an improvised explosive device went off we had a civilian come in and complained of pain in his groin. He had a rib lodged there and the x-ray showed it was not his rib so it had to come from someone else.
“When we were stationed in Al Asad, the wounded could only come in by helicopter. The weather dictated when the wounded could be shipped to Germany or back home. The sandstorms were just impossible to deal with. Everything turns orange in a sandstorm and a hot wind is constantly blowing. It feels like a hairdryer blowing in your face. Somebody measured the temperature of the tarmac and it was 149.5 degrees.
“We treated mostly Iraqi army, civilians, POWs and U.S. soldiers,” she said. “We had eight mass casualty situations and did a lot of surgeries. The doctors and nurses worked as a team and saved so many lives. Soldiers are better equipped today to stop bleeding or hemorrhaging by carrying tourniquets on them and placing it on the affected limb. It was the dustiest and dirtiest place I had ever seen.
“The temperature would be 120 degrees by 1 in the afternoon. I found myself missing my family, my friends back home, and all the simple things of life. People would send us food by mail and we would make a pizza out of it. Sometimes my buddy Col Luz would barter for steaks, hamburgers and chicken and we would invite everyone for a cookout. At times we would have to put 30 steaks and hamburgers in our little dorm size refrigerator so we spread the “wealth” around a lot because having a steak, hamburger or pizza on the grill with your buddies was just awesome, even though it was with a non-alcoholic beer. Your boots are always muddy so I had a friend send me a brush. We had eight latrines and they would overflow often.”
Vignone came home in 2007 and tried to transition back to civilian life, in between her stints with the reserve unit.
“I absolutely see life with a different perspective now,” she admitted. “It is all very sobering, to realize what our soldiers are going through. My own personal feeling is I think everyone in our country should do some sort of community service, to give back the way our soldiers do.”
Working at Sturdy Hospital, Vignone occasionally sees traffic in the Emergency Room that reminds her of a war zone. “You never erase those memories, the one’s you helped saved and the looks on those faces that you couldn’t save.”
“Emergency rooms at hospitals in big cities probably are a better comparison,” Vignone said. “In Iraq, you suddenly had casualties coming in and everyone was flying around, trying to do their jobs. I find myself thinking of my time in Iraq when I am home. You never really forget it but you are proud you did it.”