True Courage Under Fire

Commander (CDR) , RN, an officer in the U.S. Navy Nurse Corps, doesn’t sugarcoat what it took to reach officer rank in three different branches of the military, obtain two post-graduate degrees with plans to get a doctorate, and be awarded the Purple Heart for her service in Iraq, all while remaining a dedicated wife and mother. “It took hard work, determination and support from my family to get where I am today,” she declares.

Lenora C. Langlais

Before entering the military, Langlais worked as a civilian nurse after graduating from Villanova University College of Nursing in Villanova, Pennsylvania. Her career path as a military nurse began in the U.S. Air Force Nurse Corps in 1988 and has followed a uniquely winding course over the past 17 years. Langlais served four years in the Air Force, five years in the Army and has been in the Navy for eight years.

“I’ve been blessed to be able to take my skills and use them in the military,” she says. “I wanted to travel and use my nursing skills, so I have the best of both worlds. The pay and educational opportunities in the military were [vastly superior to what was available in] the civilian sector. The military trained me and gave me the opportunity to utilize my training in a proper setting.”

CDR Langlais believes her family and faith have been paramount in her success, including her recent service in Iraq as a combat nurse. The mother of five children, including six-year-old twins, Langlais explains that her family supports her career without hesitancy. “My husband is a Navy engineer, so he has a clear understanding of what [this life is like]. He is retiring in January 2007 and I will complete my service in 2011.”

During her long and varied career in the military, Langlais has worked in many areas of nursing, including the ER, oncology, critical care and combat trauma units. Today she draws on her experience as both a civilian nurse and a military nurse to help other Navy nurses make the transition back to civilian life. “I’m on a core staff that assists nurses and helps them use the skills and experiences they have from being in the Navy in the ‘real world,’” she says.

In the Line of Fire

In February 2006 CDR Langlais went to Iraq, where she found herself serving as the only African American senior combat nurse in the town of Al Taqaddum, on the outskirts of Al Fallujah. During her five-and-a half months there, she worked in combat trauma care, serving many severely wounded patients.

“I saw a lot of people die. I saw a lot of severe injuries. That’s what happens in wars,” she says matter-of-factly. “There is a difference between witnessing trauma as a civilian nurse and as a combat nurse. Civilian nurses will see patients come in with gunshot wounds, and it’s hard. But in a war you see wounds from explosions, and human bodies so damaged. Our medical technology hasn’t advanced far enough to keep up with these types of injuries. I prayed to God for guidance on how to care for these people.”

On April 7, CDR Langlais was coming out of the galley when she was hit by the second of four rounds of mortar blasts. “The base I was on was very close to Habbaniyah and it was very busy with insurgents day and night,” she says. “Through intelligence, the insurgents learned that the base was highly populated.” Fortunately, she survived the blast and no other military personnel were injured.

Although she has now recovered from her injury, she still feels its lingering effects. “I have damage to my face,” she explains. “The injury is from my cheekbone down past my chin and neck. I went through exploratory surgery after the attack. I have no feeling at all on the right side of my face due to nerve damage. Whether or not I ever recover feeling depends on if the nerves regenerate.”

In a remarkable display of bravery and dedication to her duty as a combat nurse, CDR Langlais refused to leave work after she was injured in the blast. “There were too many junior nurses there who needed me,” she recounts. “The night of my injury, we had a patient who was having an allergic reaction to medication and I gave him care to help him breathe. They weren’t too happy with me for continuing to work, but I wasn’t going to let him die in front of me.”

She stayed on in Iraq for three months after her injury. “I was treated and recovered in a combat zone. I came home two months early and experienced a lot of guilt because of that.”

People who know Lenora Langlais say this dedication to putting the needs of others before her own is typical of her. “She is an inspiration simply because she cares,” says Chaplain Terrell Byrd, who served with CDR Langlais in Iraq. “She cares about people, her job, her profession and her family. She is an inspiration because she came to Iraq as a volunteer. She didn’t have to at her level, but she chose to be at the front of the fight. As a wife and mother of five, I can only imagine her difficulty in making that decision. Even when she was wounded she decided to stay to set an example [of courage] for her young corpsmen.”

A Humble Hero

Despite everything, CDR Langlais feels that “overall, being in Iraq was a wonderful experience.” Does she consider herself a hero? “No,” she says simply. “I consider myself a naval officer who is a nurse.”

CDR Lenora Langlais, RN, receiving the Purple Heart decorationCDR Lenora Langlais, RN, receiving the Purple Heart decoration

But that’s not what the Navy thought. Upon returning home to Camp Pendleton, Calif., CDR Langlais was awarded the Purple Heart for her courage under fire.

The Purple Heart is a combat decoration awarded under the name of the President of the United States to members of the Armed Forces who have been wounded or killed by “an instrument of war in the hands of the enemy.” It is the oldest military decoration currently used in the world and it was the first to be made available to common soldiers. The Purple Heart originated in 1782 during the Revolutionary War and was reestablished by the War Department in the 1930s. The idea of honoring American soldiers for bravery in the face of war is credited to the nation’s first President, George Washington, who wrote: “Not only instances of unusual gallantry but also of extraordinary fidelity and essential service in any way shall meet with due reward.”

That description is a perfect fit for CDR Langlais. “While deployed and in her personal time she rendered the personal touch,” Chaplain Byrd says. “In Al Taqaddum, during her tenure, I don’t know of anyone who did not know her name. There were those who would stop to say ‘thank you’ to her for the time she took with an injured soldier, sailor, marine or airman. During very difficult and long medical procedures she took time to explain what was happening to the military member. CDR Langlais is a natural leader who embodies all that is best of the naval service and the healing arts.”

Through it all, she remains humble. “I am blessed,” she says. “God was watching my back that day. My head could have been blown off. But I survived my injury, I can speak and my face is fine. I served my country, took one for the country and lived to talk about it. I’m grateful for that.”

Despite being wounded, CDR Langlais is still willing to return to Iraq if she were to receive the call. “I would go back,” she declares. “I’d pray about it and discuss it with my family, but I am willing to serve my country again.”

The Face of Diversity

When the U.S. Navy is looking for a nurse who embodies dedication and hard work, they turn to someone like CDR Langlais. She was chosen in 2005 to be featured in the Navy’s recruitment advertising campaign to be the face of the Navy Nurse Corps.

CDR Langlais on duty in Al Taqaddum, IraqCDR Langlais on duty in Al Taqaddum, Iraq

“It was a selection process that included quite a few candidates,” she explains. “They picked me because they thought I had the most appealing personality and smile and I was truly living what the ad represents.”

CDR Langlais is a model in every sense of the word–not only in the Navy ads, but also a role model for others who hope to follow in her footsteps. She travels to universities around the country to recruit other minority applicants into Navy nursing. “I’m hoping that my presence is helping to make a difference, and it does hold people accountable. I lead by example,” she says. “Unfortunately, minorities still experience the glass ceiling. We see where we can go, but we can’t always get there.”

The road to personal and professional success is often paved with adversity, and CDR Langlais has been no exception. As an African American woman she has felt the pain of discrimination. But by continuing to reach higher in educational and professional pursuits, as well as serving her country, she has literally become the picture of success.

“Being the only African American nurse and female officer on the entire base came with a price,” she says of her service in Iraq. “It was a challenge for people to be open-minded enough to take leadership guidance from me. I was labeled as confrontational and mean. If you’re anything other than [the stereotype of] a video vixen or basketball star, they can’t handle you. In their mind you’re being confrontational. But other people’s small-mindedness is not my problem. I never allow those issues to interfere with my patient care.”

What advice does CDR Langlais have for other minority nurses who are considering a career as a military nurse? First, she recommends that you “really do your research” on the nursing profession as well as on the particular branch of the military that you’re interested in. “Interview recruiters and ask lots and lots of questions,” she says. “And then ask more questions and keep asking questions again and again. Check out the recruitment office after hours when they’re not expecting you to be there.”

Her next piece of advice is: Figure out for yourself what you really want from your career and your life and then set goals accordingly. Because she knows firsthand that minorities entering the field often face barriers and obstacles that their white counterparts don’t, she stresses the importance of developing a strong support network. “Your mentor doesn’t always have to look like you,” she adds, “but it sure does help.”

She also emphasizes the crucial role that professional education has played in her success. “Education and training has been paramount in my development as an officer and a nurse. As a teacher, I love to help patients understand the importance of health care. I love seeing that light go on in people when they ‘get it.’”

Ask her Navy colleagues what kind of a role model CDR Lenora Langlais is and their faces light up, too. “There is no greater example of dignity, honor and compassion I can think of than her,” Chaplain Byrd says. “To aspiring nurses she illustrates what it means to be a perfectionist. She gives to them the pride that can only come from a professional with a 17-year career of service. CDR Langlais challenges them and others to not settle for good, but to strive for great. By example, she teaches them to excel in their educational, professional and personal goals.”