Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

Tansi Smoke Signals

March 26, 2014

Duty Station: The heart of a Navy nurse

CROSSVILLE — Joann Kelso’s nursing career began when she went to nursing school on a grant in Cleveland, Ohio. The grant allowed her to acquire her degree but, in return, she was obligated to work in Cleveland for two years. By this time her friends were settling down, getting married, and having babies. Kelso decided that wasn’t what she wanted at that time and enlisted in the Navy.

When asked if it was difficult to leave everything she had known and move from duty station to duty station, she said, “That was the beauty of it. I felt like there was more to see and do before I settled down. So, I hit the road.”

She received orders for a new duty station about every two years and met many wonderful friends, several of whom she still maintains regular contact with. She wasn’t looking to settle down and have a family but found one all the same. 

“Early on, when I decided to enlist, I saw it mostly as an adventure. Kind of a ‘finding of myself.’ But then I saw we have a family,” she said.

Kelso told how the Naval nurses followed an unspoken code that when they were assigned to a new duty station, other nurses would contact their friends at that particular duty station to make sure they were well received and had someone to help with the transition. Despite all the maneuvering that comes with a military lifestyle, being a part of the nursing family meant that these ladies were never alone.  

Kelso served as a nurse post-Korea in the Navy for about 10 years, from 1959 to 1968. Her service detail was during some of the most tense and trying times in the U.S., when fear of communism and American patriotism were one in the same. Her decade of service included events such as the continually rising Soviet tension in the Cold War, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and all but the final year of the war in Vietnam. Her fortitude brings her the added ability to carry the many life lessons she gained as a nurse for the wounded soldiers returning from Vietnam. She served in surgical intensive care in Oklahoma, receiving trauma patients a few days after they took their wounds.

“It was a very difficult, very involved time," she said. "There were so many instances of young men coming in wounded that died.”

For those of us who are not in a medical profession, it is difficult to imagine caring for and trying to save someone with such extensive wounds, and yet still be able to see the person, not just their injuries. That is what is so genuinely incredible about what Kelso and her big family of Navy nurses could do.

When she retired from the Navy, Kelso settled down and married a Marine, Jack Kelso. In 1969, still moving from station to station with her husband and their two children every few years, she maintained the military lifestyle she had grown so accustomed to. She continued to practice nursing in hospitals in the cities they were stationed. One final move to a post in Illinois found Kelso a nursing position at a rehabilitation hospital and from there she and her husband retired and moved to Tennesee.

They have lived in Lake Tansi for 12 years, have two grown children, a nurse and a marine geologist, and three grandchildren who come to Tansi and visit for vacations and holidays. When asked about what she carried with her from her career as a Navy nurse, Kelso stated, “Treasure every moment. I am blessed for all the friends I made that are such treasures to me. The young men who were wounded and lost is all I think about mainly. I was so amazed that, even with their suffering, they felt like they were doing the right thing and were so committed as young as they were. Where does that kind of patriotism come from? It’s impressive. There’s no describing it.” She continued, “It was the proudest time of my life.”

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