COMBAT OUTPOST SHUKVANI, Afghanistan – It took a night medical evacuation mission in Helmand province, Afghanistan, for all of Capt. Lani Pineda's hopes and fears from becoming an Army enroute critical care nurse to materialize. She had left the Air Force a year earlier, she said, after seeing the Army nurses in Balad, Iraq, stepping off helicopters disheveled and triumphant from their successful missions.
"I saw them and I said to myself, 'Oh – I want to do that,’" said Pineda, an Olympia, Wash., native, who deployed to both Iraq and Germany in a hospital setting before coming to Afghanistan.
A year later Capt. Pineda found herself in a Helmand poppy field, her UH-60 "Black Hawk" helicopter swallowed in darkness but an obvious target to any nearby enemy.
"As soon as they opened the door, the poppy just flew in and filled the inside of the helicopter," she said. "I like to think I'm gung-ho and I can go to those places, but for a moment..."
Once they were airborne in the helicopter, however, her training took over. She and the flight medic from "Jigsaw" Dustoff based out of Combat Outpost Shukvani worked together, combining her familiarity with hospital methods and machinery with the medic’s emergency trauma care to stabilize the patient. All in a third of the time it might have taken either one of them alone.
Captain Lani Pineda, an enroute critical care nurse from the 30th Medical Command, Task Force MED-A, and attached to Foxtrot "Jigsaw" Company, 1st Battalion, 169th Aviation Regiment, New York National Guard, Task Force Falcon, is one of eight nurses in Afghanistan bringing clinical experience to medical evacuation units on the front lines.
It is Pineda's first Afghanistan deployment and her first time working with a medical evacuation unit. The mentorship she has received from Jigsaw has been invaluable, she said.
Sergeant Christopher Wareing, a New Hampshire National Guard flight medic and flight instructor with "Jigsaw," said working with Pineda was easy because of her enthusiasm to learn.
"She came in with an open mind and a high level of respect for what we do," said Wareing. "She wanted to know how she could squeeze her emergency room, critical care and [intensive care unit] knowledge into the back of a helicopter."
Although she came to supplement the "Jigsaw" crew through education and in doing so expand their scope of practice, Pineda said she feels she is the one who is doing the learning.
"It's such a humbling experience," she said. "I think they teach me more than I teach them."
"Watching them save lives and knowing that I'm a part of it is amazing. They've really been like a family to me in the short time that I've been here."
For his part, Wareing said her presence has led to an upswing in the unit's morale. In the evenings the flight crews often come together for a few rounds of the game "Catch Phrase," and the laughter inevitably follows.
She's just got the knack for it, said Wareing.
"She's excited to [bring people together], because she just wants everyone to have a good time," he said.
Pineda said it's just her nature.
"I love to talk to people, I love to help them out – it gives me a high," she said.
It's what lead her to become a nurse in the first place.
"The more I looked at the medical field, I saw how nurses played a role in patient care," Pineda said. "To know that is your job as a nurse, to care for people physically, emotionally, spiritually—it's one of those few jobs where you can honestly say you've changed somebody's life."
Practicing in Afghanistan has thrown her motivation into relief. She said the bare bones immediacy of medical evacuation and the exhilaration of saving lives reminds her every day of this motivation. A nurse and a soldier, Capt. Lani Pineda said she is proud of her contribution to the International Security Assistance Force's mission in Afghanistan.
"I wanted to say I put my combat boots to work," said Pineda. "How many nurses can say they flew in a helicopter in Afghanistan, and landed in a poppy field? To have these memories and know what I did—I'm fortunate to have had the opportunity to be here."