March celebrates National Women in the Military Month. As a nurse practitioner, retired U.S. Navy Capt. Mary K. Jacobsen was already in service to her fellow man, but then was commissioned in the U.S. Navy at the rank of lieutenant at the age of 38.

“No kidding,” she said of, not exactly her career change, but of her unique career redirection.

Jacobsen was born in DeKalb, IL. She and her younger brother are only a year apart and she was the only girl in her neighborhood growing up.

She laughed and said, “So, I played ‘Army’ and everything else.” 

She attended the University of Illinois, earning her bachelor’s degree in nursing. She started as an acute care nurse. Pursuing her master’s degree from University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, she specialized in advanced primary care nursing and became a certified family nurse practitioner. She worked as a nurse practitioner for three years, but also having a teacher’s heart, she taught in the Associate Degree Nursing program at a community college in Wisconsin. 

She said at that time, the options for women were nurses or teachers. She did both. 

“So much of nursing is teaching,” she added.

One of the big to-dos was the Wisconsin Air Show and when she was in graduate school, her aunt and uncle were involved with the Experimental Aircraft Association. She became involved with the War Birds retired military aircrafts and worked the flight lines. As a liaison between recruiters for her students at the college, the lady female commander of the Milwaukee Navy Recruiting District contacted her to see if she’d be interested in joining the Navy. 

“I always felt like I was missing something because I hadn’t gone into the military,” she said. “So when this opportunity came up, I was at a point in my life where I thought — why not?”

She was commissioned in the Navy on Sept, 8, 1990, and completed Officer Indoctrination School in November where she met her future husband, Navy Naval aviator Aviator Capt. L. Scott Jacobsen.

Upon completing OIS, her first assignment was serving at the Naval Hospital in Jacksonville, FL, where she was a practicing member of the teaching staff for the Family Practice Clinic and Family Practice Residency Program, the largest and oldest Family Medicine Residency Program in the Navy, established in 1969. She said the transition from civilian medicine wasn’t difficult because she said the Navy functioned under the same practice model.  

“One of the things I got to do within a year of being there is deploy to Cuba when the Haitians decided to leave their island and go to Miami and were intercepted by the Coast Guard and we had to establish refugee camps there to manage them,” she said. It was 1992, and she deployed to Guantanamo Bay for Operation Safe Harbor.

“There were four of us (nurse practitioners) actually that deployed there, and before we had shown up it was all physicians, but they started realizing that nurse practitioners were a good application for refugee health because it was wellness and minor acute. So we had a team with physicians and nurse practitioners that provided the health care. It was all very interesting. It was the first time I ever saw real measles.”

She served as the General Medical Officer on the USS Forrestal (AVT-59). She said her most interesting case was when a shipyard worker was run over by a forklift. The paramedics were outside the gates of the base so the medical team from the Forrestal responded. She had just finished the trauma care course with the corpsmen who worked with her. She and her team attended to the injured worker, administering a tourniquet, an IV, oxygen and all right there on in the shipyard. 

“He had fallen face down and didn’t know his leg was gone,” she said. “I talked to him the whole time so he’d stay conscious. We didn’t tell him his leg was gone.”

The paramedics did arrive and took him by ambulance to Jefferson Hospital to the Emergency Room. 

“He came in to the ER, wasn’t in shock. They took him right up to surgery and the physician called me and said it was the best ER case they’d ever had … it saved his life.”

She was one of the last crew members of the USS Forrestal before it was decommissioned on Sept. 11, 1993.

Then she served as a family nurse practitioner at the Naval Hospital in Newport, RI.

Capt. L. Scott Jacobsen, whom she’d met in OIS, became her husband April 30, 1994. She joked and said he was her “Navy-issued husband.” 

She served two years in the Individual Ready Reserve and went with Scott when he was stationed overseas to the American Embassy in Greece, serving as Defense Attaché.  

They returned stateside in 1996. With the Navy Reserve, she was assigned to Naval Hospital Jacksonville Detachment 108. The following year, she affiliated with US Naval Forces Central Command Detachment 108, supporting the Fifth Fleet surgeon’s office in Bahrain and Tampa. While on reserve duty in Bahrain, she was the acting Force Surgeon during the crash of a civilian Airbus on the island of Bahrain, directing the military rescue operation. Her reserve department head remarked “She stepped into an environment that was way beyond what a Reservist would normally be expected to perform and did it superbly.”

After 9/11, she was recalled to active duty and stationed in Washington, D.C., where she served on the Chief of Naval Operations staff as the director, Navy Reserve Force Health Policy and Planning (OPNAV 095) for seven years. As a policy maker, she and the staff drew up medical responses, protocols, mobilization capabilities, and vaccination regimen policies.

“It was a great challenge because this was at the start of the war and we were making the decisions on what health preventative measures we needed to put in place to protect our service members going overseas,” she said.    

“I think we did some good things.” 

They also helped to streamline medical policies between reserve and active forces, as well as develop a web-based I.T. system to communicate the medical readiness for the entire Navy Reserve force, a capability that even the active duty Navy force didn’t have at the time.

“Eventually, all of Navy, all of Marine Corps, all of Marine Corps Reserves, and the Coast Guard began using this system,” she said. 

She said it made it easier to track force readiness. 

“Everything that’s involved in the policy side that needs to be done to make sure you’ve got a ready fighting force … it’s all interactive,” she said. 

She was in the service for 22 years, with 15 years of active duty, noting that her work in the Navy was exciting because it always presented new challenges and new accomplishments every day.

“It’s never the same thing,” she said. “I worked in family practice clinics. I did ship board medicine. I did field medicine. I was a policy maker.”

Her last active duty assignment was as Executive Officer of Navy’s Wounded Warrior Program, Navy Safe Harbor, where she was second in command. “I had been selected as part of the Inspector General team to review Navy’s procedures for wounded, ill, and injured sailors. Then I was asked to be part of the Process Improvement team where we developed possible solutions. But the best part was being asked to be the XO of Navy Safe Harbor to implement those changes.

“It was a very gratifying exciting experience because we changed sailors’ lives for the good, being able to help the sailors and we also took care of the Coast Guard wounded, ill and injured,” she said.  

She separated from active duty in July 2010 and retired in 2012. 

Capt. Mary K. Jacobsen earned the Legion of Merit, two Meritorious Service Medical, two Navy and Marine Corps Commendation medals, and two Navy and Marine Corps Achievement Medal decorations, as well as Joint Meritorious Unit Award, two National Defense Service Medals, the Armed Forces Expeditionary Medal, Global War on Terrorism Service Medal, Humanitarian Service Medal, Sea Service Deployment Ribbon, USCG Special Operations Ribbon, and Pistol Qualification Ribbon. 

“It’s not a job. It’s an adventure,” she said.

For her, she said serving in the military, “Added a greater sense of patriotism, because I was able to serve my country and know, in my particular contribution, that I was supporting the operational fighting forces who are the front line for us.”

When asked if she would have done anything differently, she simply said, “I would have started younger.”

For all the women serving in the military, Jacobsen said, “Well, they’re all heroes. I know quite a few and respect each and every one of them for the outstanding contributions they made to their branch of service. 

“It’s not just women, it’s anybody that’s considering military or who has served.” 

She added, “When I came into the Navy, we all had the attitude of ‘We’re all sailors.’”

The decision she made to join the Navy brought her what she didn’t know she was missing; the adventure, the colleagues, the contributions, the opportunities, the impact and even the husband. She was able to make a difference in so many lives by putting her professional medical skills to work in the service of the nation’s heroes, as she is herself. 

For all the experiences her career in the U.S. Navy added to her, she said, “I wouldn’t trade it for the world.”

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