During February, I’m digressing from my usual rants and honoring some very special women on the 25th anniversary of the Gulf War. You possibly read Kitrina’s on Facebook. If you have, please share it. These women’s stories are empowering and inspiring.
Before serving in the military, Kitrina Serna described herself as stubborn, stupid, spoiled and a bit naive. She opted for culinary arts school over college. Her ambition was lackluster, until one day, a billboard to join the Army National Guard, intrigued her. Her part-time commitment would be just two weeks/year and one weekend/month for twenty years. How bad could that be in exchange for an education?
Kitrina never imagined she’d be activated and deployed. Like many guardsmen and women, all she’d wanted were education benefits. Then, Desert Storm happened. Kitrina was trained as a surgical technician. Once deployed, Kitrina’s first surgery, an amputation, was led by a 1-star general. “It was awful,” she recalls. “I had limited training before Operation Desert Storm, but not much practical; he was unimpressed with my abilities.” Before long, the heavy, rapid caseload had Kitrina working 12-hour shifts, six days/week at King Fahd Medical Complex, in Riyadh, Saudia Arabia. She was a quick study, and became adept and efficient in O.R. Humor proved to be a useful coping tool. “For example, a 21-year-old enemy soldier presented with a scrotum injury. It was my first scrotum prep. You can imagine the joy of the men on my team, watching a young woman, new to this scene, doing her first scrotum scrub. Humor helped us deal with it.”
Once Kitrina’s tour ended and she returned home, she was always introduced as, “This is Kitrina, She Just Got Home from War”. “It was like my new last name.” She wasn’t angry, per se, but numb. “I just couldn’t process what’d happened in war. You can’t tell your family and almost wonder who these people are, whom you call, “family”. They just aren’t capable of understanding. Kitrina remembers beginning to break down when she experienced a flashback, while driving home from nursing school, one day. “The song, ‘Highway to Hell’ came on the radio, just as it had while on the road to Baghdad.” After twenty-five years, Kitrina can still recall what she was wearing to school that day. The nightmares became brutal, as the numbness subsided. “I’d wake myself up beating on the bedroom walls.” Alone time was awkward. “Silence is so loaded.”
Kitrina worked through her PTSD and seemed fine for about 8-10 years, until the wife of a Vietnam veteran told Kitrina it was time to get help. In reality, Kitrina was struggling mentally and physically. Getting into the V.A. System was difficult, at best. One day, she packed a lunch, a USA today and ended up calling in sick to work. It was serious time for help. She told only one person at the V.A. that she was struggling -an elderly security guard- then, she collapsed into a puddle of tears.
Kitrina was diagnosed with Chronic Multisystem Illness. It presents with fatigue, joint and muscle pain, cognitive problems, rashes, headaches and intestinal issues. Research points to anthrax and other vaccinations, neurotoxins from gas and smoke from burning oil wells; all intrinsic to Gulf War veterans. She managed chronic pain with Vicodin; depression and anxiety with Prozac. Unfortunately, since 2003, Kitrina has been unable to work in nursing, but good things have happened since then. “I’ve been available for my children, more so, than if I’d been in the traditional work force. In addition, I’ve been able to be a caregiver to my mom, as well as my father-in-law, during their respective illnesses.
Kitrinia further reflected on her military service, “You know, being a medic wasn’t only about making people better. It’s about serving patients with dignity; even the enemy patients. They’re people too, just executing government’s orders, like us. One day, Tony Drees landed in her O.R., just a week after he landed in Saudi. A scud missile hit Tony’s barracks; he lost the meat off of the back of both thighs.” The severity of his injuries kept Kitrina’s surgical team engaged for hours. She felt a heavy impact of this raw reality, once adrenaline wore off, thinking, “How ironic that the poor guys on the table were the lucky ones, because the ones who didn’t get to O.R. were dead. I’ll never forget after surgery was completed, they turned Tony over, onto his back. He seemed so young, so vulnerable, lying there fully exposed – literally and figuratively. There must’ve been six or more people in that O.R., watching Tony. At that moment, and Tony doesn’t know this, I needed to give him his dignity, so I placed a towel over his private parts; he deserved dignity.”
Kitrina hasn’t seen Tony since he was in her O.R, until she picked up an issue of People Magazine a year later (5/30/91). Tony was featured with his mother, Vivian, at his hospital bedside. The issue described the day he was hit. The photo of Tony confirmed he was the young soldier, whom Kitrina had treated, from O.R.
As we concluded our conversation, Kitrina talked about that towel, 25 years later. She laughs at the fact, that at age 20, she didn’t give much thought to her parents’ character lessons as she was growing up. In hindsight, she takes pride knowing that the towel gesture spoke volumes about Kitrina’s character, at that age. Research defines her name further; it means pure, generous, and compassionate. “It was a small thing I could do. I guess if I were ever in this position, hopefully, someone would do the same for me. You can’t put enough value on dignity.”
Kitrina recognizes the fact that some people joined the guard for more noble reasons than she did, and she wouldn’t want to take that away from them, however, most people would agree that the reason for joining pales in comparison to the noble performance while serving.