Lynne Vining was wrapping up her junior college career as a softball player at Shelton State Community College 25 years ago when she had to make a decision about her future.
Vining knew she wanted to spend her working life helping others. She thought about staying in athletics to help develop young people through sports — and perhaps get a crack at coaching against the now-legendary head coach emeritus of the University of Tennessee Lady Volunteer basketball team, Pat Summit, a person she admires greatly.
But Vining also had her eye on a career in the health field. She is a passionate advocate for the sick and injured and compassionate toward their needs, embracing every chance she gets to help others.
About Lynne Vining
United States and coalition forces serving in Afghanistan — along with Afghan civilians and even enemy soldiers — saw all of that firsthand for 180 days this year when Vining was the team leader at the NATO Role 3 Hospital in Kandahar Air Field, Afghanistan. Vining, a nurse manager in the Medical Intensive Care Unit in UAB Hospital, also is a lieutenant in the Navy who served as intensive-care nurse specializing in combat trauma. She returned home to Birmingham in late September after serving in support of Operation Noble Eagle and Enduring Freedom.
Vining returned to work at UAB Monday, Nov. 5 — six days before the United States honors all who have served or are currently serving this country for Veteran’s Day. UAB marked Veteran’s Day with a wreath-laying and flag ceremony on the Campus Green at noon Nov. 8. Human Resources also posted a list of employees who have served the nation on its website as a way to honor the institution’s veteran employees.
Vining was profiled in the UAB Reporter in May when she was on active duty. Since returning home, Vining has had a chance to reunite with her family, friends and dogs, and take a vacation. She’s also had time to reflect on her experiences this year, what she left behind in Afghanistan and what soldiers — and those who care for them — still face each day. She’s also embraced that she was a part of history. It makes this Veteran’s Day more special and personal than any she’s previously experienced.
“This Veteran’s Day is definitely a little different for me,” Vining says. “My heartfelt prayers are with those serving in Afghanistan right now because it’s a difficult place to be. I’ve become a combat veteran in less than a year, and that’s pretty significant — especially because of the people we trained before we left who are still there.
“It’s only once you get home that you recognize the impact of what you and your comrades did, where you served and for what purpose. And I do believe we made a difference.”
Tough year before deployment
More than 300 UAB employees identified themselves as veterans during Human Resources’ recent call for recognition. Vining is one of several who have served active duty this year.
Vining, who had previously been in the Army National Guard, joined the Navy Operational Support Center (NOSC) Bessemer Naval Reserves in 2010. She joined knowing that she was going to be deployed to Afghanistan due to the critical need for ICU and critical care specialists.
“My recruiter was very honest,” she says. “He said it was not a matter of if I deployed, but when.”
It wasn’t long after joining the Naval Reserves that Vining experienced several emotional blows. At the beginning of 2011, she learned that her cousin Sissie Browning had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Then came the April 27 tornado outbreak. Browning and her mom both lost their homes in Tuscaloosa, and that same tornado made its way to Vining’s neighborhood in Pleasant Grove where her home was hit and endured significant damage.
“The tornado was 100-150 yards from my front door,” Vining says. “There were about 15 seconds there where I was saying, ‘I’m not ready to go now.’” Soon after it ended, Vining helped stabilize an injured neighbor whose home was destroyed.
One week later, Vining’s mother Nadine Lawrence called to tell her she had been diagnosed with breast cancer. Then on May 10, Vining got the call that she was on the grid to go to Afghanistan.
“It was a whirlwind before I even went to Afghanistan,” Vining says. “It was a pretty hellish year.”
Fortunately, Vining was able to be with her cousin and her mother as they went through treatments under the care of UAB Breast Health Center Co-Director Helen Krontiras, M.D., at UAB’s Comprehensive Cancer Center. She was able to see that they were going to be OK before she reported for duty Dec. 29, 2011, and was told she would be leaving Birmingham to start training for active duty Jan. 2.
Vining arrived in Afghanistan Feb. 22 of this year, and she and her team worked their first mass casualty event before they had their first training session.
“The injuries that you see there are just devastating,” Vining says.
Caring for the injured
The Role 3 Hospital in Kandahar is “the best facility you can have in a place like that,” Vining says.
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List of UAB employees who have served
More than 300 employees who are veterans responded to UAB's Human Relations' department voluntary request to identify themselves and their service.
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The building, while small, has the look of a compact hospital. It has an emergency room, a trauma bay, up to five operating rooms that connected to the ICU and a 30-plus bed ward.
The ICU had a maximum of 22-23 nurses on base at one time. Vining’s team consisted of four, including her, and they worked the same shift together for the entire time of their deployment. The group of three women and one man became close, and even did things together when they weren’t in the hospital.
The group became so close, Vining says, that when trauma events did happen, they wouldn’t have to use speech to convey their thoughts to each other.
“We would look at each other in the eye after mass casualties, and we didn’t have to say a word,” Vining says. “We knew how each other felt.”
Impossible to prepare
Vining and her teammates had seen significant injuries in their day jobs stateside before they ever set foot in Afghanistan; all of them are clinical veterans, but this was the first combat experience for any of them. The training they were provided before they left was thorough. Still, the comparisons to combat medicine just aren’t there.
“There is absolutely nothing on this side of the world that can prepare you for the actual experience you have when you get there,” Vining says. “They try. They do the best they can. But that kind of trauma and the emotions that go with that that you internalize. . .young men and women you see, to me they’re like babies because they’re so young. Nothing can prepare you for that.”
The injuries treated in the Role 3 ICU are horrific. Single, double and triple amputees come through. Vining’s team was working one day when a quadruple amputee came in.
Major gunshot wounds and blast wounds are common, many from improvised exploding devices. Burn victims also can be frequent.
All of the injuries pull at your emotions, Vining says. But the sole focus is to save lives and find a way to return these critically injured soldiers back home alive.
“Many of the Navy surgeons would often say if these injuries happened in the civilian world, they wouldn’t survive,” Vining says. “Yet we’re out there in the remote parts of Afghanistan in a top-notch Role 3 facility, and we manage to save them and get them transported to Germany and potentially back home.”
Vining says the traumas come with an emotional toll for the caregivers, but some of that emotion is in the form of amazement at the strength of the soldiers.
“I thought I would be OK with the traumas, and when I initially saw it, I didn’t stop what I was doing,” Vining says. “I kept rolling like I would if I was here. But later on, the devastation and the deformities. . .my initial thoughts were, ‘How did these guys live just to get to our ER?’ I think a lot of it has to do with the fact that they’re young and can compensate a lot for blood loss. That went a long way to our 98 percent survival rate.
“I’ve looked through the pictures I have a few times to grasp how enormous these injuries were, and I take great pride in that 98 percent survival rate.”
Part of her healing process also has been seeing some of the soldiers she treated back home with their loved ones.
One of the most emotionally taxing things for Vining and her team to go through was seeing the treated soldiers leave for Germany. While they might have been stable, their lives were still at risk. But since she returned home, she has seen one of her patients honored at a homecoming to Auburn University and another featured on NBC Nightly News.
“When they left, I often wondered, ‘What are we sending home, and what are they going home to,’” Vining says. “Being able to see them moving on with their lives and being with their babies and moms and dads has been a huge part of the healing for me.”
A slow process
Other aspects of her return home also have been uplifting.
The opportunity to see the progress of her cousin and mom with their health concerns has given Vining great joy. Her dogs, Oakley and Wally, fully believe they have reclaimed their spot as Vining’s top priority. And, of course, her friends have helped ease her back into civilian life.
Still, every day is a process — trying to recalibrate and resettle into normal life. It’s a process that can be frustrating at times for Vining because of its pace.
“It takes a little while to realize what I went through was a lot bigger than me,” Vining says. “And the transition now that I’m back home is a little bigger than me. It gets a little easier each day.
“I just hope people realize that when soldiers come back home, they aren’t broken. They just have to reconnect their emotions that have been shut off for so long.”
Part of the reconnecting came this week with Vining’s return to work. It has been 11 months since she had an opportunity to work with her friends — some of whom she’s known since back to when she started in UAB Hospital in 1989. She’s missed them greatly.
“I’m fortunate that I love my job, and I work with tremendous people,” Vining says. “Everyone at UAB has been supportive of me from day one. I’m fortunate to work in a strong environment that has a lot of support and understanding and, fortunately, a lot of patriotism for the people who serve our country. I’m very proud of that and talked a lot about it to my comrades in Afghanistan. They were sort of amazed that my workplace, being a large academic medical center, would be so supportive.”
As for her military future, Vining doesn’t plan to make any decisions on what to do next anytime soon.
She doesn’t intend to retire, and she doesn’t have to go to drill until March 2013. She’s going to take the time between now and then to talk to others who have served and assess her options. Right now, she says, her focus is on pursuing her doctorate of nursing practice at the School of Nursing next fall and continuing to do a good job in the UAB MICU.
One thing she knows for certain is that she has no regrets about her decision to serve.
“It gave me an experience I could have never gotten in the civilian world,” Vining says. “I love the people I served with in Afghanistan. It’s hard to describe, but it’s a camaraderie that I know if I haven’t seen them in 10 years, if I see them on 10 years and one day, it’s going to be like we never left each other.”