While there are only few Airmen at Walter Reed in comparison to the number of Sailors and Soldiers at “the President’s Hospital,” the Air Force’s contributions to patient care and accomplishing the many missions at the flagship of military health care, cannot be denied. Such is the case with Air Force Senior Master Sgt. Erin Barger.
The senior enlisted leader (SEL) in the Directorate of Nursing Services, Barger is a native of Dexter Missouri and has served in uniform for 23 years.
“I’m an aerospace medical technician, which falls under nursing oversight in the Air Force similar to the way 68W and 68C do in the Army, and corpsmen in the Navy,” Barger explained.
“I joined the Air Force because I couldn’t decide whether or not I wanted to be a doctor or a pilot,” she shared. “After joining, I found my home in health care and preferred the work of direct patient care so unique to nursing. In this field, you get to inspire and motivate patients to think beyond their current limitations. You watch the progress of wounds healing, and you put interventions in place to make people’s lives better tomorrow. You meet them at their worst to help transform them into their best.”
Barger added that she’s had the privilege for fly air evacuation missions for eight years at the height of the Global War on Terrorism (GWOT), transporting patients back to the States for care.
“I’m no longer at the bedside, but I’m here now to create opportunities for enlisted [service members] to expand their skillsets, perspectives, and confidence in their own abilities,” said Barger. “I was not prepared for war, but if I have anything to do with it, the next generation will be.”
Barger said nurses must be “compassionate, resilient and tenacious,” in order to deliver quality care.
“I was coined once for kicking some of President [George W.] Bush’s supply off an aircraft to make room for a critical patient. It was wonderful to see that a leader presented with the facts would have the guts to decide to save a life at what he perceived as the expense of his career,” she explained.
Another rewarding moment during her nursing career Barger shared was helping a 4-year-old Afghan patient with an injured arm to color. “I realized she had never seen some of the colors in a crayon box before. The actual colors were foreign to her brown and gray world,” Barger shared.
The nursing directorate SEL also said she finds it rewarding to “watch the relief on a patient’s face when pain control finally takes effect.”
“Now, watching something click in a junior [nursing] member’s face when he or she finally gets something in training, and knowing that ability will touch thousands of lives in the future, is just as rewarding,” Barger added.
She said it’s sometimes difficult to manage the emotional demands of working in a high-stress health care environment, especially as a nurse.
“I fought hard to earn my spot in air evacuation. I went from being exceptionally proud of bringing patients back from war, to wondering if it was what they would have wanted [because of their injuries],” she shared. “Who do you talk with about that? Everyone around you is still excited to be helping. Their excitement just makes you more and more isolated, so you pretend to be excited, too,” she candidly said.
“The only thing that kept me from spiraling was one of my patients found me about a year after my second deployment. He was flying around to thank us for taking care of him, letting him meet his baby girl for the first time, and letting him hug his wife again. I finally sought mental health care 12 years later when my PTSD from war operations and the stress of being a first sergeant were almost unmanageable. It’s taken a lot of work, and I’m not balanced yet, but I’m getting there,” she openly and honestly shared.
Barger said another experience which greatly affected her involved transporting a critically ill newborn from Okinawa Japan back to his parent’s home in Texas. “This newborn was going so his extended family could meet him before he was taken off life support.” She explained that a medical error caused his condition. “We must put barriers in place to prevent such errors,” she firmly stated.
She said despite the situation, what moved her was the attitude of the newborn’s family.
“I thought I knew what I would face on that mission and built my mind around several assumptions – hostility and anger from the family; heartbreak of providing care that would do nothing to help the baby or family; and dealing with various stages of dying and death with the family. But none of that proved true.”
“The whole family was engaged and showed so much love to their baby, and to us,” Barger said. “The patient’s mother held him the entire flight. His brothers and sisters tried to play with him, and they were all so kind and composed. I’ll never forget handing out food during the flight, and the patient’s sister stopping me, giving me a hug and thanking me for taking care of them and her little brother. This tragedy could not have fallen on a less deserving family,” she added.
Barger summed up her job as both rewarding and difficult. “It is a calling and is not for the timid or faint of heart. The time to prepare is not when you show up at bedside or get deployed.” She encourages those new to the “calling” to shadow more experienced nurses in various settings. “Find your passion, then put in the work to prepare yourself – body, mind, and soul – for those opportunities.”
She also thanks the Air Force for something else. “I’ve lived for at least a month on all seven continents. Thank you, Air Force.”