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'Nurse hero': Army surgeon general Horoho finds her calling

Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, Army chief of staff, left, and retired Col. Ray Horoho, her husband, pin the three-star epaulets on the shoulders of Lt. Gen. Patricia D. Horoho, the 43rd surgeon general and commanding general of the U.S. Army Medical Command, in a Dec. 7, 2011, ceremony at Joint Base Myer-Henderson Hall in Arlington, Va.

Lt. Gen. Patricia Horoho has a career unlike any other Army nurse.

Horoho, the Army surgeon general and commander of Army Medical Command, is the first woman to serve as the Army's top medical officer.

The Fayetteville native, who was born, wed and twice gave birth at Fort Bragg, is a role model for female soldiers, officials have said.

But the defining moments of Horoho's more than 30-year career have little to do with rank or gender.

Horoho played major roles in the responses to two different tragedies. In both instances, she credits training and preparation for quick responses that have been heralded as no less than heroic.

In 1994, Horoho was head nurse in the Womack Army Medical Center emergency room when it was flooded by severely burned soldiers injured when two planes collided at Pope Air Force Base.

The Green Ramp disaster killed 24 paratroopers with the 82nd Airborne Division and injured scores of others.

The emergency response earned the hospital the Superior Unit Citation.

Seven years later, Horoho again found herself amid a disaster, this time at the Pentagon during the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.

After the intentional crashing of a plane into the Department of Defense headquarters, Horoho was one of the many who ran toward the point of impact, giving aid and coordinating the emergency response.

For those actions, Horoho was honored by Time Life Publications and the American Red Cross, which dubbed her a "Nurse Hero."

During a return visit to Fayetteville and Fort Bragg in November, Horoho was praised for her efforts in those disasters and for her leadership of one of the Army's largest commands.

"This is a leader who finds herself in the thick of things," said Col. Steven Brewster, commander of Womack Army Medical Center.

Horoho seems to be where she is needed when she is needed. But she said it is far from chance that puts her in those situations.

"I'm a firm believer that God puts you where you need to be for all the right reasons," she said.

Horoho joined the Army after graduating from the University of North Carolina in 1982 and immediately wanted to return to Fort Bragg. But the Army had other plans.

Horoho began her career after basic training at Fort Carson, Colo. She found herself stationed with her brother, an Army officer, and her sister, who was married to an Army officer.

It took her 10 years to return to Fort Bragg, she said.

During that time, she attended the University of Pittsburgh and met her husband, now retired Col. Ray Horoho. They were married at Fort Bragg.

While in school, Horoho worked on a graduate degree. She twice had to change the focus of her research, once because there were not enough patients to study.

She ended up spending significant time researching burn care and critical incident stress management - which focuses on helping people deal with trauma.

After graduation, Horoho got her chance to serve at Fort Bragg.

During the Green Ramp disaster on March 23, 1994, she relied on her knowledge of both areas she had studied.

On that day, an F-16D Fighting Falcon collided with a C-130E Hercules cargo plane over Pope. The collision sent the fighter jet skidding across the runway and into a parked C-141 Starlifter aircraft.

The debris and a fireball barreled into an area filled with paratroopers preparing for what would have been a routine training jump.

Twenty-four soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division were killed. Another 100 were injured.

"Had I not had those two challenges in grad school, I would not have known how to use that knowledge and expertise," she said.

Horoho and other Womack officials had been working with Pope Air Force Base and Cape Fear Valley Medical Center for a training scenario that was set for April of that year, she said.

"The scenario was going to be a mass (casualty) where we had two planes collide," she said.

It was so similar to the actual disaster that Horoho first thought the Green Ramp crash was the exercise.

"We had trained and developed relationships," she said. "I said, 'Is this our mass cal exercise?' and they said, 'No, this is real.'

"That preplanning and training is something that I have kept throughout the rest of my career," she said.

From Fort Bragg, Horoho was part of a team of Army medical officials that traveled to Haiti to assess health facilities and evaluate what would be needed to support a medical operation.

Those skills, paired with what she learned during the Green Ramp disaster, she said, helped her on Sept. 11, 2001.

"If I had not had that experience from the Pope crash, I'm not sure I would have instinctively known to run to the site where the plane entered," Horoho said. "Afterwards, I would not have known to return and request the right supplies for sustained operations."

"I think every experience that you have gives you some tools and knowledge that you'll use somewhere else," she said.

Both incidents have had lasting effects on Horoho.

"What I always will remember is the response from the community," she said of the Green Ramp disaster.

The disaster occurred on a beautiful, sunny day, she said, as she recounted tales of soldiers saving one another and shielding each other from the fireball caused by the crash.

Horoho said all the patients brought to Womack had the same response as she visited them.

"Ma'am, I'm OK. There's someone who's worse off than me," she said.

"What that showed me was the American spirit," Horoho said. "The core of being an American soldier is what's important. It's people looking out for each other."

Because of her involvement in both tragedies, Horoho said not a day goes by that she doesn't tell her family that she loves them.

"Life is short. And you need to appreciate every day you have," she said.

Horoho wore many hats during her visit to Fayetteville and Fort Bragg in November.

She helped usher in the Healthy Base Initiative at Fort Bragg, an effort to promote healthier living through a number of exercise and nutrition programs. And she was a keynote speaker at the Forward March conference in Fayetteville, an annual event targeting service members and their caretakers and focusing on challenges that military families face at home.

But Horoho, who moved her parents in with her family several years ago, said she simply wanted to "drive by the old house" and "go to places that were special growing up."

"There's nothing like the Bragg community," she said. "It's special unto itself."

Horoho attended St. Ann and St. Patrick Catholic schools before attending E.E. Smith High School, where she graduated in 1978.

The family lived in the Cottonade neighborhood off Yadkin Road. And her life was deeply connected to Fort Bragg for many years.

Those connections are part of the reason for the emphasis she paid to the post last fall.

"Bragg is a pivotal place for us across my command and across the Army," Horoho said, explaining how she pushed for Fort Bragg to be a pilot site for the Performance Triad, a program that seeks to change soldier lifestyles through nutrition, better sleep habits and exercise. "It's a community that's diverse - that's deployed and redeployed. . To be able to marry that up and have this culture change in a community . I think it can be the role model."

Horoho said efforts such as the Performance Triad were even more important as the military moved away from the wars that have defined the past decade-plus.

It also was representative of a shifting focus, a movement from "health care to a system for health," Horoho said.

"We are radically and fundamentally changing the conversation by focusing on health outcomes and improving quality of life," she said. "I think this is our opportunity to show within the army that it works . to decrease reliance on medication and improve wellness."

When Horoho joined the Army, nurses could not command hospitals let alone serve as the Army's top medical officer.

Horoho said her career options were limited by prolonged commands that were restricted to physicians.

The pinnacle job, she said, would have been chief of the Army nurse corps, a role Horoho filled between 2008 and 2011.

But for all of her accomplishments, Horoho almost never joined the military.

Growing up, Horoho was a military dependent and grew up surrounded by the Army in Fayetteville.

She wanted to be an airline flight attendant, but a height requirement kept her from pursuing that dream. Instead, her family steered her toward nursing, she said.

It was then, while at nursing school at the University of North Carolina, that Horoho decided to join the Army during her senior year. Horoho said she was in the back of a nutrition classroom at UNC when the thought hit her for the first time.

"Never," she repeated when asked if she had ever considered a military career before that day. "I'll be perfectly honest, it never dawned on me and no one ever talked to me about joining the military."

But in the back of that classroom, Horoho - then Patricia Dallas - came to a realization.

"I think I just want to join the Army," Horoho recalled. "I want to do it for three years - three years only. I want to see something different and then I want to come back to Fayetteville and that's it."

In 2013, Lt. Gen. Horoho celebrated her 30th year in uniform, far exceeding her own expectations.

"I fell in love with being a soldier. I fell in love with being part of a health care team that had such a pure mission," she said. "As long as I enjoyed what I was doing, I was going to stay on active duty."

brooksd@fayobserver.com 

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