By Staff Sgt Sherree Grebenstein, 167th Airlift Wing
/ Published September 17, 2009
MARTINSBURG, W.Va. -- Surrounded by fellow Airmen, friends and loved ones Saturday afternoon, Lt. Col. Sandra L. Duiker of the 167th Airlift Wing capped off an illustrious military career by learning that she has been put in for two of the highest awards bestowed for service to one's country and state: the Air Force Legion of Merit and the West Virginia Legion of Merit.
Col. Roger L. Nye, commander of the 167th Airlift Wing, told those gathered for the retirement ceremony that anything less than those awards would not be suitable to recognize Duiker's accomplishments for her 20-plus years of military service to her country.
"She has saved many lives," Nye said.
Duiker, who is retiring after more than 18 years of service with the unit's Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, made history earlier this decade when she became the first member of the 167th Airlift Wing to earn two Bronze Star Medals.
She was awarded her first Bronze Star Medal in 2002 after establishing the aeromedical evacuation northern leg of Operation Enduring Freedom for Turkey, Uzbekistan and Afghanistan after the events of Sept. 11, 2001.
"We had nothing and through extraordinary effort set up an aeromedical evacuation presence and moved wounded warriors expeditiously, safely and with highest standards of care," she said.
The flight nurse earned her second Bronze Star in 2004 for serving as the director of operations at Manas Air Base in Kyrgyzstan "coordinating another new aeromedical evacuation presence and developing a database to track aeromedical evacuation personnel, their demographics and their mission information as well as patient tracking," she said.
And while Duiker feels honored to have received the two Bronze Stars for those accomplishments, she noted that, "it was only successful because of the team we had. If we had not worked together, the mission could not have been so successful."
Duiker was the commander of the 451st Expeditionary Aeromedical Evacuation Flight. Responsible for command and control for those assigned to Operation Enduring Freedom, Duiker also advised the operations support squadron commander of aeromedical evacuation operational capabilities and requirements. In addition, she provided management oversight for those assigned, attached and transiting aeromedical evacuation elements.
During her career with the 167th Airlift Wing, Duiker held a myriad of titles to include everything from assistant chief nurse to fulltime senior health technician while the current commander was assigned to the Air Force War College.
"My primary job was planning," she said. "Offering lessons learned from real-world experience for Operational Readiness Exercises and Operational Readiness Inspections."
Flying missions around the globe, Duiker has found herself in an array of countries such as Iraq, Afghanistan, Qatar, Panama, Somalia, Cuba, Germany, Venezuela, Hungry, Bosnia, Oman, Turkey, Uzbekistan and Pakistan.
Prior to joining the 167th Airlift Wing's Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron in March, 1991, Duiker had a 24-year break in service after joining the Army Nurse Corps in December 1964.
She served as an operating room nurse assigned to assisting in orthopedic reconstruction surgeries on those wounded in Vietnam. Prior to being discharged from the Army Nurse Corps in January, 1967, Duiker was assigned to Ft. Sam Houston in Texas, Ft. Benning, Ga., and Ft. Rucker, Ala.
Duiker is retiring after more than 20 years of military in the U.S. Army and West Virginia Air National Guard combined.
So what prompted Duiker to want to serve her country again?
Operation Desert Storm.
She comes from a long line of those who have served in the military.
"Perhaps, probably, I am the only child of a World War I veteran serving on active duty in 2009," she said.
Duiker's father, Cleo Colburn, served in the 339th U.S. Infantry (which was nicknamed The Polar Bears) as a machine gunner in northern Russia from 1918 until 1919. Ironically, the fighting in and around Archangel lasted until May of 1919. Duiker said her father fought his last battle in Russia on April 3, 1919, almost six months after the armistice to end the First World War.
"He was sent to Russia ... fought against the Bolsheviks, in and around Archangel, Northern Russia. The winter campaign was fought in temperatures as cold as 50 degrees below zero.
"He was a machine gunner and told of interesting and unique ways of keeping the water cooled guns operational in those temperature extremes.
"The 339th fought under British command and had the harshest assignments and the worst food," Duiker said. "He succumbed to pneumonia and was taken to a British hospital. Demonstrating their utmost concern for his wellbeing he heard a British physician say, 'put him in the death area, if he's alive in the (morning) we'll see about treating him.'"
"Perhaps that's what sent me to aeromedical evacuation to ensure the modern-day wounded received more compassionate care," she said.
Duiker's great grandfathers served in the Union Army during the Civil War.
"Serving in the military comes naturally in our family," she said. "My two brothers served in World War II - one in Guadalcanal, the other as an Army Air Corps aviator. Our sons and two grandsons have served and are serving in the Army, Navy, Marines and Air Force."
Duiker and her husband of more than 30 years have six children. Three of the couple's four sons chose to make a career out of the military.
"Our two daughters married men who had military service," she said.
Lt. Col. Sandra Cotton, chief nurse, said that Duiker - having sons serving in the armed forces - was another reason she returned to serve her country in March 1991 as a nurse with the 167th Airlift Wing.
"Lt. Col. Duiker is one of the most patriotic people I know," she said.
Cotton said Duiker "took the call to duty personally" and deployed six times in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom.
Perhaps just making it to drill might be considered a feat in itself for Duiker.
After moving to Texas in 1993, Duiker faced a 23-hour, 1,458 mile road trip to fulfill her military obligation. She currently resides in Kosse, Texas, about 100 miles east of Fort Hood and 150 miles south of Dallas.
When asked whether she would change anything about her two decades of military service, Duiker said she wouldn't navigate off the previous course.
"What I have experienced is incomparable," she said. "Were there times when I could have made a better decision? In retrospect as a Monday morning quarterback, sure."
"However, I could look in the mirror every morning and say, 'Well, I gave it my best.' If that is how you operate, you can be at peace with yourself and your life."
Looking back on her long, highly-decorated military career, Duiker reflected on the many personal milestones she had achieved.
And while promotions, medals, decorations and earning her master wings brought back special memories, it was the journey itself that apparently kept her focused.
"The real highpoints are the events, the camaraderie, the incidental but deeply meaningful encounters, and the quiet feeling of accomplishment at the end of a terribly stressful action," she said.
"Combat operations are not my bailiwick - it's the aftermath of combat in the swirling mixmaster of war that's my thing," she said. "I am a flight nurse, planning missions with a myriad of details; taking care of and transporting our wounded warriors is what I do.
Adding: "And I do it with every bit of energy and ounce of good sense that I have."
Over her career in the West Virginia Air National Guard, Duiker has undergone thousands of hours of training.
"It's important to put those hours of training to use," she said. "My personal goal was to deploy (overseas) each calendar year."
And from 1992 until August, 2009 she accomplished her goal save for twice.
"I suppose two highlights of a very eventful career involved Operation Enduring Freedom," Duiker said. "(We had) challenges to be met and conquered."
Officials with the Allied Forces Central Europe tasked Duiker by name to set up the aeromedical evacuation operations for the north area of Afghanistan in October, 2001.
"It was an awesome task, getting personnel, equipment, a place to set up, etc.," she said. "By the time I went home (the area) was well settled and operational."
Another memorable career milestone came for Duiker when she was again requested by name by Allied Forces Central Europe officials to establish aeromedical evacuation operations in a NATO/ International Security Assistance Force environment.
"It was not unlike the beginning of Operation Enduring Freedom, getting personnel, equipment, a place to set up and getting the aeromedical evacuation established and underway," she said."
Duiker has mixed emotions on retiring from the military. She said she'll miss "my 167th extended family members (and) equally the opportunity to deploy with worldwide aeromedical evacuation members."
"Deployments with multi-service and multi-unit "Rainbow" personnel bring out the best from every member," she noted.
Duiker said deployments allow for "new outlooks on common issues, new processes to accomplish tasks. Everyone has something to offer and much to learn."
And what advice does the retiring flight nurse have for those joining the 167th Airlift Wing's Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron?
"Remember why you joined; appreciate and absorb every lick of training offered," Duiker said. "Then it is your personal responsibility to take what you have been given and do the mission.
"It is not always comfortable and lord knows we would all rather be home with family and friends, but each of us has a responsibility to serve our nation.
Adding: "Freedom is not free and we have volunteered to give every bit of our being ensuring that our country does remain free and since we have all volunteered, we have a responsibility to serve to our utmost."
Duiker's military awards and decorations include the Bronze Star with one device, Meritorious Service Medal with one device, Air Force Commendation Medal with three devices, Air Force Achievement Medal with one device, Joint Meritorious Unit Award, Meritorious Unit Award with one device, Air Force Outstanding Unit Award with Valor and two devices, Combat Readiness Medal with seven devices, National Defense Service Medal with two devices, Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal with two devices, Afghanistan Campaign Medal, Iraq Campaign Medal with one device, Global War on Terrorism Expeditionary Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, Armed Forces Service Medal with two devices, Humanitarian Service Medal with two devices, Air Force Overseas Ribbon Short with five devices, Air Force Expeditionary Service Ribbon with Gold Border with five devices, Air Force Longevity Service with four devices, Armed Forces Reserve Medal with 10 "M" devices, one device; Small Arms Expert Marksmanship Ribbon (Pistol), Air Force Training Medal and NATO Medal with one device.
She has also earned the following state awards: West Virginia Meritorious Service Medal, the Louisiana Emergency Service Medal, West Virginia Distinguished Unit Award with one device, West Virginia National Guard Minuteman Ribbon, West Virginia Service Ribbon with two devices, West Virginia Emergency Service Ribbon and the West Virginia Achievement Ribbon.