By Patrick Cronin
Hampton Union, Friday, May 23, 2008
[The following article is courtesy of the Hampton Union and Seacoast Online.]
[Rich Beauchesne photo]
HAMPTON -- Retired Army captain and nurse Suzanne Tetreault has the distinction this year of being the first woman ever to speak at the Memorial Day observances of American Legion Post 35.
The Exeter resident's military career spans 32 years in the medical unit, with the last one serving in civil affairs in Baghdad, Iraq, from March 2006 to April 2007.
Ralph Fatello, commander of Legion Post 35, said he asked Tetreault to be the guest speaker at the post's 76th Memorial Day observance after meeting her at Portsmouth Regional Hospital.
"We were there visiting a friend of ours (Jack Kelly) who was a World War II veteran who had taken ill," Fatello said. "We were up there goofing around acting juvenile and this nurse walked in and started throwing them back at us."
The nurse, Fatello said, turned out to be Tetreault.
Fatello said they began to exchange Army stories — or as they call them sea stories — and that is when they discovered Tetreault was not just a nurse. She was an Army nurse who was awarded 18 military ribbons and medals, including several Achievement Medals and the Defense Meritorious Medal.
"What she had done in her role in the military by comforting those who are wounded or passing on is remarkable," Fatello said. "Nurses are like the unsung heroes out there and we thought she would be the perfect speaker.
"And if she can handle Jack Kelly, she can handle speaking on Memorial Day."
Tetreault began her military career in 1975 when she joined the Air Force.
"I really wanted to be a police officer," Tetreault said. "But back in the '70s there really wasn't an opportunity to be a female police officer."
So instead, she joined the Air Force, which later led to a career in the Army.
In the Army, she joined a medic unit as an X-ray technician and then as a nurse. In 2002, she served in Kuwait treating American and Coalition forces.
Tetreault said her last tour of duty was not as a nurse but as a civil affairs officer in "the Green Zone" in Iraq.
"It was unexpected," Tetreault said. "But it was an eye-opening experience."
The Iraq she saw was not the one portrayed on the nightly news.
"There is a lot of good being done over there that is not being portrayed on the news, which is frustrating," Tetreault said. "The good things never make the news. Blood and guts make the news. The dying soldiers make the news. But the good things don't. It's sad."
Working hand-in-hand with Iraqi civilians, she helped them get necessary care through the National Iraqi Assistance Center (NIAC), a humanitarian group contracted by the U.S. military located in Baghdad.
"Civil affairs works with the local population and helps them rebuild after the war," Tetreault said. "They're doing tons of work out in the field that is really great for the people."
Tetreault said NIAC helped open more than 100 clinics in the country and helped farmers reopen beef and dairy farms, among other tasks.
It also worked to restore electricity and other infrastructure.
Tetreault said her job was to find sponsors to help fund the Iraqi children and to find care for them in the United States and other countries, sending them across the world for medical aid.
"It really wasn't medical care from the war," Tetreault said. "It was eye, heart and orthopedic surgery and cancer-related injuries. But there were a few injuries related to the war."
One war-related injury involved a 5-year-old girl who was playing outside when an insurgent's random mortar shell landed next to her.
Tetreault said the girl's leg was amputated and they were able to find a sponsor to send her the Shriners Hospital in Sacramento, Calif., for treatment.
And Tetreault's work in Iraq wasn't without danger.
"We were mortared a lot," she said. "It was not that frequent in the beginning, but towards the end it was every day. Some of my friends got killed."
But no matter how bad it got, no one questioned why they were there.
"Even the soldiers I met in the hospital that were injured," Tetreault said. "They all wanted to go back out because they knew the job they were doing and the difference they were making."
Tetreault said the majority of the Iraqi people are happy the American and Coalition forces are there.
"They say, 'Even though the bombs are every day, we lived with that before, we're living with that now, but at least we're free.' They're free to move around, they're free to say what they want.
"There is a very small population that is causing all the trouble," Tetreault said. "The other people are like you and I. They just want a job. They just want to send their children to school and be safe."
Tetreault said she was sad to leave.
"Being in Iraq was my passion," she said. "I really loved it. I was in the military for 32 years and my time was up. It's sad because it was such a big part of me."
Tetreault said she was honored to be selected this year's guest speaker especially on a day that honors many of her friends who ended up paying the ultimate sacrifice for their country.
"Memorial Day for me is a time to honor all those who have served," she said. "It's a time to remember where we came from and how far we have gotten."