Kathryn Wilgus

A Nursing Career That Speaks Volumes
LCDR Kathryn Wilgus, RN, Nurse Corps, USNR

“I didn’t join because I wanted a weekend job. I joined because I wanted to be a part of something bigger, better, greater than myself. It’s my legacy.”
— LCDR Kathryn Wilgus, RN, Nurse Corps, USNR

Kathryn Wilgus’ story isn’t typical. A high school dropout, she returned to school to get a diploma because it was required to enlist in the Army Reserve. That was 25 years ago.

Today, she’s a Perioperative Nurse in the Navy Reserve. A nurse who’s known as the hardest-working Operating Room (OR) Nurse Mentor an Afghan National Army (ANA) hospital has ever worked with – but one distinction in a storied career that speaks volumes.

At the ANA hospital, odds were LCDR Wilgus wouldn’t succeed in earning the respect of the male OR staff. Or help them work better as a team and develop standard operating procedures so they could handle more critical surgeries. But she did. And more.

Since the OR staff didn’t have a surgical mentor, LCDR Wilgus arranged for an international orthopedic surgical team to visit and repair an Afghan soldier’s unhealed leg. She recalls, “He spent a year walking with a broken rod in his leg, even though it was supposed to have been fixed. Who could live like that?”

Not only did the arrangement get a soldier the help he needed, it helped show the Afghan OR team a new technique – and it earned LCDR Wilgus a Defense Meritorious Service Medal for her efforts.

When not busy mentoring in Afghanistan, LCDR Wilgus headed out to meet the women and children in the area. “The Afghans really are good people,” she explains. “They see that you willingly came, and you’re a female and you’re strong. They appreciate that. There’s hope for them. Nothing’s going to change overnight, but we didn’t become America overnight.”

Beyond all the intangible rewards, serving in the Navy Reserve has provided many benefits, according to LCDR Wilgus. Between her Army and Navy Reserve service (26 years in all), she’s progressed from Enlisted Hospital Corpsman to earning her BSN, RN and CNOR credentials to becoming an Officer in the Nurse Corps – getting promoted to the rank of Lieutenant Commander (June 2012).

She’s also scheduled to graduate with honors and receive her master of science nursing degree in management and education (May 2012). “This is my third year of deployment, and I used my TA (Tuition Assistance program) the whole time,” she says.

Among other things that LCDR Wilgus has had the privilege to enjoy is strong professional support. “The nursing community has been incredible. Even in Jacksonville, Fla., where I’m from, the nursing leaders have really overwhelmed me with professional support. I feel like it’s my lucky year.”

That said, she’s proud to look back: “I know I am where I am today because of the military. Period. I’m grateful. I pay it forward as much as I can.”

One compelling way she does that is through the simple inspiration she provides others, “If I can do it, anybody can.”

This firm believer in long- and short-term goals has met a lot of hers. And next up: serving aboard an aircraft carrier. With ever-present enthusiasm, she offers a reminder, “I still have ambitions. I’m not done yet!”

Something We Take For Granted

“When I was on the USNS Comfort, we started off in the Dominican Republic and then went to Antigua and Panama. We were there for nine days of surgery. People from all over were walking to get to where the ship was going to be docked.

One of the ladies, 70 something, had bad cataracts. Technically, she was blind. So we did one eye and, because you never do them at the same time, she came back the next day for the other.

They told me when she woke up and could finally see again out of one eye, she was singing ‘God Bless America’. That moved me.

It’s something we take for granted. To have the ability to be able to have that surgical procedure, which is really a very quick procedure.

When I look back, I’m going to ask, how did I change my world? How did I live my life to benefit others? Did I step out of my comfort zone to be a voice of hope?

God gave me the purpose to be a nurse. I’ve been called to do it in uniform. It’s who I am.”

— LCDR Kathryn Wilgus, RN, Nurse Corps, USNR