In New York on 9/11, then caring for wounded soldiers, a Navy nurse still struggles

Colleen Brady, in her Northeast Minneapolis yard: "Your job and your responsibility and your obligation to this family is to keep your [stuff] together. You have no business crying, or getting [emotionally involved]. You have a job to do."
MinnPost photo by Jim Walsh
Colleen Brady: “Your job and your responsibility and your obligation to this family is to keep your [stuff] together. You have no business crying, or getting [emotionally involved]. You have a job to do.”

Colleen Brady lives with her dog, Sarah, in a quiet neighborhood in Northeast Minneapolis. The 37-year-old Totino-Grace grad loves gardening, holistic health, reading, live music and the Minnesota Twins.

It’s a quiet, contemplative life, and a far cry from the 42-bed unit at the National Naval Center in Bethesda, Md., that she oversaw six nights a week at the height of the Iraq War.

Her story, in her words:

A year ago, I wouldn’t have been able to talk about some of my experience, because I don’t think I realized how profoundly it affected me until I was trying to get healthy, both mentally and physically. I was stationed in New York on September 11, and I and another Navy recruiter were on the highway when we heard about the twin towers. We thought it was a prank. We pulled off and watched it on TV and then went out and got back on the highway and saw the smoke and returned to base. But I was stationed in a federal building in Saratoga Springs, New York, and spent the day alone, watching TV like everybody else.

That was the beginning of some of the more profound things. Not that my experience wasn’t profound the first four years of my Navy career. It was a big deal for me. I felt very proud to join the Navy, because I wanted to serve. Both my grandfathers served. I had a sense of service that my parents instilled in me, so it felt good to take that risk and get out there.

But I was stationed in California in peacetime. I learned to love the ocean, and made some of the best friendships of my life. We worked hard and we played hard, but there was no imminent danger. Before Sept. 11th, depending on where I was, people would see me in uniform and sort of look down on me. But then, it was so tragic what happened, but in some ways I feel bad even saying this, but the profound gratitude people would express felt very genuine. It felt like they really were grateful that I was serving, and that they were appreciative of military members and the sacrifices they make. On Sept. 10, it was not that way. On Sept. 12, it was.

A shift in perspective
I used to go to breakfast every day at Kelly’s Deli in Saratoga Springs. I was a recruiter, so I’d be in one of my nice uniforms. And they were friendly enough before Sept. 11, but I didn’t pay for coffee on Sept. 12 or the rest of that week. And people bought me drinks and dinner. I didn’t take it for granted, or abuse it, but it was nice to see a shift in perspective, and to be appreciated.

I was a Navy nurse, and recruiter. It made me, for sure, be a more honest recruiter: “I’m not going to lie to you. If you’re joining now, there’s a very high probability you are going to be deployed. So don’t do this if you just want free college or something; if this isn’t your calling, don’t do this.” So Sept. 11 made me be the recruiter I wanted to be. The first five nurses I put on active duty were deployed within five months.

My brother and (former) fiancé are both in the service, and they were sent to Iraq shortly before I was sent to Washington, D.C. I was at the National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda. Most of our guys coming in from Iraq are going there. It was hard duty. My immediate supervisor and I ran a 42-bed unit. He was a hands-on kind of guy, and he wanted me to be a hands-on kind of gal, and we both took shifts.

Sometimes we were taking care of the 92-year-old retired enlisted sailor from World War II, and that was just as moving as taking care of the guy who 24 hours ago was hit by an IED or something in Iraq. Oftentimes the guys coming back from Iraq would have burns, lots of burns, or limbs missing. We had one guy who was just amazing. I wish I could remember more of my conversations with him. He lost both of his legs above the knee and most of his fingers on one hand. He was the smartest, funniest guy. He had a rough go of it, but he had the best attitude on our unit. A Marine. He was more positive and gung-ho than we were. I wish I could remember his name.

As a Navy nurse, I was a lieutenant, a junior officer. And one of the junior officer’s duties is standing the night nursing supervisor duty, basically. It’s called the nurse of the day. I was responsible for going around to each of the units and getting an update. We consider all our guys that come from Iraq, that come from a war area, a command interest, or a special interest patient. And the commanding officer and the senior nursing officer every morning want to be updated on how those guys, specifically, are doing every morning.

A daily Reader’s Digest recap of lives
Part of that duty overnight is we get a roster of who’s coming. We get sort of a Reader’s Digest version of what’s happened to them. So when I was nursing supervisor overnight, the hard thing was that you had to go check the list. My shift was 11-7, and I’d go check in at the quarterdeck, the main headquarters administrative part of the Navy building.

It was a physical list, printed out waiting for me. Mentally, I’d get ready before I even went in to work. Taking the Metro in, I’d prepare myself. I’d take a couple deep breaths, and just know that I had to get through the shift. I wasn’t there to be crying; I was there to get my job done. So I’d take the list and look at it, and I’d scan it first for my brother’s last name, Brady, and my fiance’s, Thomas, because I knew I’d be the first to know, because we were often the first to know, even before the families knew.

I had to shut down that little bit of logic. It would have been too much. Maybe when I’d go home, or on Saturday when I didn’t have duty, then I’d think about it. After a third or fourth glass of wine, I’d make up scenarios and stuff. The hard part was playing out the possibilities. We work hard and we play hard in the Navy. We know how to put a few back. That was probably one of my coping mechanisms.

That was something I always looked out for in some of my friends. We drank, and we drank a lot. But there were times when I’d be alone, and I’d have a glass of wine or a bottle, and that’s how you get through it. That’s how I got through it, I should say. When you’re living alone in Washington, D.C., and your brother and fiancé are stationed in Iraq …

On a good night, there’d be six or eight names on the list. On a bad night, there’d be two dozen. I’d give the list a quick scan up and down, and even though their names never showed up and they’re both alive and safe, it happened to so many others. It didn’t matter that it wasn’t them, it happened to someone’s family; it’s almost like it happened to all of us.

I work for Health East now. I work in the maternity departments of St. Joe’s in downtown St. Paul and St. John’s in Maplewood. Maternity is my specialty. That’s what I started out as, that’s what I trained in, because when I started it was peacetime.

Yes, I would say the experience haunts me. When I left active duty, I struggled with this sort of identity crisis. I lost my sense of purpose. I did a lot of drinking and gained a lot of weight, and shut myself off from a lot of friendships and socializing, really. And as I started to get healthy, I realize my identity is inside, not outside, but it’s hard.

I started doing my master’s in holistic health studies, which was a great way for me to get some knowledge I wanted, but also to just be a healthier, better person. And in one of these classes at the U, we were in this incredible space, like a chapel. It was a “Peace—Building Through Mindfulness” course. They brought in a Native American medicine man, who sat us in a circle and did a tobacco-smudging ceremony with us.

One memory she can’t erase
Again, I never have really thought very often about specific memories or people; none of the guys who were coming back from Iraq that we were taking care of in Washington, D.C., but during this ceremony, I couldn’t shake the image of one of the guys.

He came in from Iraq, and it was the worst. The worst. The worst patient history I’ve ever seen. As a nurse, it was horrible to read. Even as a person. If I didn’t know any better, to hear that somebody had had that much blood replaced, part of his skull is missing, he’s burnt over the majority of his body, he’s missing at least above the knee on one leg, I think below the knee on the other, one arm was gone and the other was horribly mangled. And he was from the Twin Cities. It was horrific.

Seeing him stayed with me, and I didn’t know that. I had never thought about him since that night when he came in. Nothing had ever come up before, but I think that ceremony opened this door of emotion and memory, and that’s when I started to realize that even though I wasn’t in Iraq, seeing some of these people and caring for them and seeing their family … it was very hard.

I didn’t know what to do with that. It was almost like this soul that I had met. He was never awake. He died within a week of being there. To feel his presence and his pain and then to be there with his family when they were finding out just how bad it was, and knowing that your job and your responsibility and your obligation to this family is to keep your shit together. You have no business crying, or getting [emotionally involved], you have a job to do.

So, yeah. You probably stuff it. Maybe I stuffed a lot. I don’t know. Maybe he came back just to say, “You need to let us go.” I didn’t even realize they were there. I’ve never really told anybody that, but I went to talk to the medicine man and told him. “What happened?” I asked him. “You did this!” Because the weird thing is that his face wasn’t torn up, it appeared to me just like he was before [he was blown up].

Something happened in there, in that chapel room with the medicine man, and I didn’t know what to do with it. He just reassured me and told me to let the experience happen and that I’d figure it out. And I think I slowly have been.

I also took a therapeutic horticulture class, and I’ve been working in the yard and garden. It seems like a little interpretation of what I have to do to get through some of this stuff. You have to pick some of the weeds that just don’t belong in there.

Delma Francis: Remembering the horror — and instant sense of community — on 9/11

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Comments (3)

  1. Submitted by Bernice Vetsch on 09/10/2011 - 10:19 am.

    Her story reminds me of a Veterans for Peace Memorial Day service on the Capitol grounds I went to some years ago.

    Several nurses were there with veterans who have been suffering from PTSD from as long ago as Korea. They have, with constant support and caring, kept some veterans suffering from PTSD from committing suicide and mourned those who did. The stories from veterans and nurses alike were overwhelmingly emotional.

    This was an event far from the flag-waving and nostalgic patriotic song-singing we usually associate with Memorial Day. Thank you for featuring one of the heroes who wear nurses’ uniforms and help teach the rest of us some realities of war and its aftereffects.

  2. Submitted by Jon Kingstad on 09/10/2011 - 09:06 pm.

    Tremendous. Colleen has made a huge difference in many people’s lives. Her life has been tough but it shows how much one can have such an impact by maintaining the right attitude and perspective.

  3. Submitted by will lynott on 09/11/2011 - 08:57 pm.

    No offense to Colleen, who I’m sure died a little whenever she lost a patient, but until women are in the same boat with men, who have to run toward the bullets while the women run away, I’ll find it rather hard to empathize. God bless her, but she doesn’t know the half of it.

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