Most people try a variety of jobs before deciding on a career. Mary Blackburn knew at a young age she would not only be a nurse, but do so through military service.
Now serving as vice president for growth and market development at Hugh Chatham Memorial Hospital, Blackburn helps recruit the impressive staff throughout the hospital system.
“It seems like my time in the Army was a lifetime ago,” said Blackburn as she reminisced about her military time which started with an Army ROTC scholarship in the spring of 1983.
That scholarship sent Blackburn to Georgetown University in Washington, D.C., where in the spring of 1987 she received her Bachelor’s of Nursing before being commissioned in May of that same year as a second lieutenant.
“My grandfather, William J. Hannan, a retired Marine Corp colonel who had served in the Pacific during WWII, was present at the ceremony,” said a beaming Blackburn, “and was able to administer the Oath of Office to me in a personal swearing-in ceremony.”
Hannan had been a big part of the reason Blackburn chose service.
“My grandfather had always been a significant role model for me and his military background had made an impression,” said Blackburn. “His leadership skills, his commitment to ensuring that justice was served, and his amazing command presence were an integral part of who he was and were certainly traits that I wanted to acquire.”
Blackburn’s decision to choose a military start to her nursing career was encouraged by circumstance as well.
“My goal when I was applying for college and scholarships was to obtain a nursing degree,” explained Blackburn, who was the oldest of six children.
“My family had significant medical bills from my youngest brother who had been treated for cancer and then died at the age of 5. It was necessary for me to develop a plan to obtain the education I wanted without a financial impact to my family.
“I was 17 when I signed my initial paperwork ,” said Blackburn, “for four years of college, four years on active duty and two years in the reserve. Ten years at that time seemed like forever.”
In those 10 years, Blackburn served as a member of the Army Nurse Corps in a neurosurgery unit at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C., and as an emergency department and trauma nurse at Dwight D. Eisenhower Army Medical Center at Fort Gordon, Georgia.
“As an Army nurse, my primary duty was to provide exceptional care to active duty and veterans who received their medical care at the Army hospitals where I was stationed. I was very fortunate to work with exceptional nurses, physicians and enlisted soldiers throughout my career,” said Blackburn, who even worked with a future general of the Army Nurse Corps.
Not every aspect of service has been stellar, however.
Blackburn did not feel her service mattered to average citizens until the end of her time in the Army.
“I started wearing a uniform as an ROTC cadet in 1983. It was not that long after the end of the Vietnam War and there was not a great deal of support at that time for people in the military,” said Blackburn. “During the first Gulf War, reservists were called back to active duty for the first time since the draft during Vietnam.”
According to Blackburn, this made a change in the way people felt about the military.
“I think that time period reminded people that the military serves a valuable and needed purpose and that many people that they knew, friends, colleagues, neighbors, were part of the military and were willing to serve to protect and defend our country.”
Although Blackburn entered the Army in 1987 and remained on active duty until July of 1991, it was not until 2001 at an Order of the Arrow ceremony at Camp Raven Knob that she felt that impact.
“During that ceremony, they invite all active duty and veterans to join the ceremony in recognition of their service,” said Blackburn, whose three sons have all been members of the Boy Scouts. “Their pride in my service was a moment I will never forget.”
Another unforgettable moment was taking the oath to join the Army in the beginning.
“That oath commits all who raise their right hand and accept that responsibility to put their country, their unit, and their fellow soldier before themselves,” said Blackburn, who has several family members serving in various branches of the United States military.
“They are each exceptional people who could have chosen differently, but they have chosen to serve. The re-emergence of pride in the decision to serve our country through service in any branch of our armed forces is amazing to see.
“It is easy to take what we have for granted,” said Blackburn. “These officers and enlisted make sacrifices that it is hard for most of us to imagine.
“They have time away from their families, they challenge their physical and mental capabilities, and they often have the potential of being in harm’s way. Every person who chooses to serve now is choosing to serve in a time of conflict and war. It is not a matter of if, but when they will deploy into a war zone.
“I did not ever deploy into a combat zone, but the potential was there and so I am deeply respectful of those who have and who therefore truly put their life on the line,” said a thankful Blackburn.
“Each of us should be grateful that we have the privilege of living in a country that protects and defends freedoms and rights that many others can only dream of.”
To find out more about the Army Nurse Corps, go to armynursecorps.amedd.army.mil.
Beanie Taylor can be reached at 336-258-4058 or on Facebook at www.facebook.com/TBeanieTaylor.