Veteran Opens Up about Being a Caretaker in the Military
Cook Children's employee reflects on career and what it means to serve
Christine Oehlert isn’t exactly the kind of person you might imagine holding one of the highest-ranking positions in the military. She’s a self-described caretaker, wife and mother of two. She’s not gruff and you won’t hear her spouting off war stories around the water cooler. She is, however, a retired Chief Master Sergeant from the Air National Guard, a position achieved by only one percent of those enlisted.
Oehlert is currently a clinical operations manager at Cook Children’s and one of the more than 250 Cook Children’s employees who will be honored this Veterans Day.
Like many people in healthcare, Oehlert was inspired to pursue a job in nursing after a traumatic life experience. In her case, it was the brain aneurysm her mother suffered when she was 13 years old that set her on her path. For two and a half months, Oehlert learned tips from the nurses on how to help her mother recover while doctors worked to reduce the swelling in her skull. She received her LVN while still in high school and, like her father, enlisted in the Air National Guard at the age of 17.
“I was a health service technician, aka a field medic. We trained to take care of casualties either in the field or in a hospital setting,” said Oehlert.
Though most of her service was here in the United States, she was deployed overseas several times. She was sent to Saudi Arabia twice, but luckily never encountered combat.
A separate deployment to Landstuhl, Germany left one of the biggest impressions on her.
“Landstuhl was the first echelon of care that one would receive after being injured in the field,” she said. “I was working on the orthopedic floor during the time the Battle of Fallujah was happening. We were always full. The majority of the injuries were from IED (Improvised Explosive Device) blasts. We saw everything from amputations to broken appendages.”
While taking care of their physical wounds was her main objective, Oehlert also spent a lot of time talking to the service members who found themselves in Landstuhl. She said many didn’t know how to process what they had been through, so she would often sit with them and listen to their stories.
“It just kind of became natural because I’m the kind of person who always asking ‘how’s it going?’ and you could just see that some of them needed to talk about their experiences. It was part of the healing process and a way to make sure they weren’t closing themselves off,” Oehlert explained.
Another life-changing experience came when she was called on to help unload the body of a fallen service member from a rotator.
“I’ll never forget the first body I took off a plane. They’re still bloody and dirty from the battlefield. You’ll never forget those men,” she said in a somber tone. “You always have respect for putting on uniform, but you have even more respect when you see what the individuals down range have been through.”
After 26 years of service, Chief Master Sgt. Oehlert retired last year. She says she still struggles with considering herself a veteran, but is starting to grow into the role. In fact, she is one of the founding members of Cook Children’s newly formed Veterans Group, which aims to increase awareness and recognition for veteran and military families within Cook Children’s.
“I think it’s going to help not only our own employees realize how many military members are at Cook Children’s, but our patient families who may not even know how many of us are helping to take care of their children,” she said.