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A challenging responsibility

When Sherry Hamrick joined the Air National Guard 25 years ago, the world was a very different place.
It was peacetime, and Katrina was just a girl’s name.
In her years in the Guard, Hamrick, a colonel, has seen a lot of changes.
Hamrick joined the Air National Guard after graduating from Appalachian State University with a degree in sociology and business administration. She eventually went on to receive a master’s in nursing and has long been a flight nurse in the Guard. Currently, Hamrick is the chief nurse in her squadron.
In the early 1990s, Hamrick was overseas during operations Desert Shield and Desert Storm. She remembers being a soldier in a strange land without the convenience of email and cell phones.
“It took 38 days to get my first letter during Desert Storm,” said Hamrick. “You hoped you didn’t need something from home because it would take awhile.”
Of course, technological advances have changed that, and Hamrick thinks improved technology has made soldiers’ deployments a bit easier on families. She also believes these improvements have boosted morale overseas, as soldiers can feel more connected to family back home with email and digital pictures.
Having also been deployed to Saudi Arabia during our current conflict, Hamrick has seen the difference firsthand. Next January, Hamrick will again be deployed overseas, though she does not know exactly where she will be going this time.
She does know that our soldiers’ continued deployments are affecting communities all over the country. Ours is no exception.
“I think we all know somebody who’s been over there at one time or another,” Hamrick said.
Yet the Middle East is not the only place the Guard has taken Hamrick. Her squadron was sent to New Orleans in the wake of Katrina to evacuate hospitals and fly patients to safety.
According to Hamrick, since neither planes nor buses could get in or out of New Orleans, helicopters were the only option. She and her squadron set up triages at Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport, which remained operational despite being damaged and without power.
Patients were brought to the airport by helicopter, sorted out and put on planes bound for different destinations depending on their medical condition. Hamrick’s job was to decide who needed to go where.
Her squadron was on the scene soon after the storm hit, but Hamrick says her stay in New Orleans was not a long one.
“My job was over a lot sooner than other people,” said Hamrick.
Katrina was not the first hurricane on Hamrick’s resume. She had helped out in Florida after hurricanes Andrew and Floyd. Hamrick says Katrina was different because it was not a matter of rebuilding; there was nothing to rebuild.
“I know everybody saw it on television,” Hamrick said. “But you can’t put words on it, to see that destruction on your own soil.”
Hamrick says seeing it on television or reading about it in the newspaper did not even come close to doing justice to the reality of post-Katrina New Orleans.
For Hamrick, it was a hands-on experience. She remembers trying to get an elderly man who was recovering from surgery to safety. His wife was clinging to him for dear life, afraid they would be separated. Even though the plane was supposed to carry hospital patients only, Hamrick made an exception.
“I let her go with him,” said Hamrick. “She wouldn’t have cared if I put her on the wing. She wasn’t going to let him go. I couldn’t leave her behind.”
When Hamrick is not attending to wounded soldiers overseas or helping get hurricane victims to dry land, she teaches nursing at Cleveland Community College.
Hamrick says she enjoys teaching and plans to continue. Yet she knows that, come January, her students will have to do without her for awhile.
“It’s a reality,” Hamrick said. “You know the rotation will come up.”
Having been there before, Hamrick is prepared for what lies ahead. She says the Guard has changed a lot since she joined in 1981; now the chances of being deployed are exponentially greater.
“We trained for all the stuff but we never dreamed we’d need the training we received,” said Hamrick.
After 25 years in the Guard, Hamrick has had ample opportunity to put her training to the test. Considering all she has accomplished, it is safe to say Hamrick has passed every test with flying colors.
by Allyson Levine

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