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Storied career

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Marge Blunk served her country with multiple roles through the years

By C.J. Risak, For the Chronicle

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Some people know what path in life they want to travel from childhood, and some of them are even able to realize that dream. Taking that thought a step further, perhaps the profession they pursue will be a respectable one.

And it’ll be launched from what might seem the unlikeliest of areas.

“Ever since I was a little kid, I wanted to be a nurse,” said Marge Blunk, a Hernando resident who grew up in Acton, Massachusetts, about 25 miles northwest of Boston.

So after her graduation from high school, she enrolled at the Hospital School of Nursing, in Newton (Massachusetts), earning her degree in 1957.

With her graduation approaching, Blunk said “they brought in different people to present what to do after graduation. And, of course, the military nurses came in.

“And I thought, well, it sounded interesting, and I wanted to do something different.”

She was on her way to doing something different indeed.

Since she was already a registered nurse, Blunk was a second lieutenant when she entered the Army in 1958. Her first stop was Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas, for what she thought would be basic training.

“How wrong I was,” she said. “It was an officer’s orientation course. We were assigned nurses quarters, we went to class to learn about the military, about military medicine, and from there, after we completed that course, we went to the Fitzsimons Army Hospital (in Aurora, outside of Denver).”

That’s where she decided the focus of her military career. “Four of us reported to the Army hospital,” Blunk recalled. “(The duty officer) said, ‘I have positions here and here and here, and there’s an opening in the pediatric ward.

“I said, ‘Oh, I’d love to do that, I love children.’ That started it, and I never regretted it.”

Associating pediatrics — by definition, the branch of medicine concerned with the development, care and diseases of babies and children — with the military seems far-fetched. Certainly most people would not think there could be an Army career in such an area.

“That’s right,” Blunk said. “They always say they’re with the soldiers.

“But it’s important for people to realize that there has to be support for the military person. They have to know their family is being taken care of, their children are being taken care of, when they’re deployed.”

Blunk remained in Denver until receiving an assignment in the pediatric ward in Hawaii.

“I was over there in ’59, in time for statehood, so that was an exciting time,” she said. “I did pediatric nursing there, it was supposed to be a two-year tour, and I requested an extension for six months, and then got another six-month extension because of the Berlin crisis.

“I didn’t mind because I loved it over there, I loved the Hawaiian people.”

When Blunk left in 1962, the preparation for Vietnam was underway.

“Yes, it was (busy) because this is when they were beginning to build up (for Vietnam),” she said. “The Army hospital was the facility for all branches of service in Hawaii, plus the families and children were taken care of there.”

Now a captain, after leaving Hawaii, Blunk went through another year of schooling back in Texas, spending six months in El Paso for a pediatrics course in maternal child health, and then another six months at Fort Sam Houston in San Antonio for an administration course.

But her last assignment while in active duty would be out of Los Angeles, helping operate the recruiting section in the country’s southwest.

“We covered southern California, Arizona and Nevada,” she said. “I was going to the hospital schools of nursing, to the colleges, to talk to (possible recruits).”

She enjoyed that tour, but it was also frustrating for her. “It was when they were building up for Vietnam,” Blunk said. “So we were getting a lot of volunteers who were going (to Vietnam), and here I was thinking, everybody’s going and I’m staying.”

Her superiors gave her an answer that would become familiar to her throughout her career. “They said somebody’s got to be here, and they didn’t want me going with my pediatric MOS (Military Occupational Specialty).”

Blunk stayed on her recruiting assignment from 1963-65; it was during that time she met her future husband — and that steered her into the next phase of her life, as a military wife.

This was a different view of the military for her. A captain, her husband’s initial assignment was in Paris, in 1966. They would stay there a year — “My daughter was born at the American Paris Hospital,” she said — before he was reassigned to Germany. Unable to join him there, she and her daughter were sent to Shape headquarters outside of Brussels, in Belgium. They would spend two years there.

It was 1969 when they were finally relocated back to the States. With her husband now bound for duty with the adjutant general corps in Long Bihn, Vietnam, Blunk went back home to Acton. She didn’t receive a warm welcome.

“I was in my hometown with the children while he was in Vietnam, and I didn’t get much support,” she said. “The only support came from my immediate family. I wasn’t on a military base, like a lot of wives, because we’d just come back from overseas.

“So I could understand what was happening, to see how people really didn’t think too much of you.”

In 1978, Blunk began the third part of her military career when she joined the Army Reserve. And she actually did something she didn’t do in her active military career — she went into the field.

“I did (Exercise) Reforger, which is a big, multi-national exercise in Germany, and that was in the wintertime, sleeping in tents,” she said.

Reforger was an annual Cold War-era NATO exercise aimed at ensuring troops could be quickly deployed to West Germany in case of a conflict with the Warsaw Pact. The medical units Blunk worked with would be counted on in those situations.

It wouldn’t be the only exercise she would train for. 

“We did another active duty time with Fuertes Caminos, down in Honduras,” she said. “We were medical support for the National Guard, way up in the mountains, again in the tents — 100 degrees in the daytime, 30 degrees at night.”

These three-week training tours would prove very helpful — particularly when Reserve units were summoned during Operation Desert Storm and the war in Iraq.

“I also worked with a group that was training all the reserve hospital units that had come for their two weeks (of duty),” she said. “They would come to (Fort) Devens (in Ayer/Shirley, Massachusetts), and we had a facility that we called the local medical training facility.

“It was a big, old warehouse that we set up to use as a medical-type facility, and we did exercises for mass casualties with these people who were there for their two weeks. I was a controller for groups like that.”

Which meant she evaluated performances. Keeping Reserve units properly prepared was now her job.

In 1990, Blunk — a major — thought she might finally get deployed, when Iraqi president Saddam Hussein ordered his troops to invade Kuwait.

“In ’90, when Desert Storm was just beginning, my Reserve unit was on stand-by to be activated, a big, general hospital,” she said. “I called headquarters and asked if there was anything I could do.”

Then came an answer she’d heard before. 

“They said well, you’re a pediatric nurse. However, in my civilian job I was a visiting nurse with the local hospital, a community health nurse — and when they heard that, they said you can go back to Fort Devens, which was about 20 miles from where I lived.

“So I went there, thinking if my unit got activated I could go back. Well, they didn’t (get activated), so what I did was backfill for a nurse who had been deployed.”

Blunk would fill in for others who had been summoned to Kuwait for duty, checking on new births and visiting retired veterans who had been discharged from hospitals. She also helped put together educational programs for troops, which was part of their mandatory training — “preventative medicine type things,” she said.

“It was a 10-month tour, and it was an interesting assignment,” Blunk said, then added, “No, I never got over there (to Kuwait). I tried, but they said ‘You’re my asset, you’re going to stay here.’”

In 1996, Blunk retired from the Army Reserve as a lieutenant colonel. She would remain active in her passion, however — in the beginning of 2002, she went through all the training and became a member of the Red Cross disaster team.

“We would deploy to disaster sites, mostly tornadoes and floods,” she said. “We’d get called at night, and if you knew something was happening you’d always be packed and ready to go.

“You’d be called at night and you’d be on a flight first thing in the morning, and off you went. I attribute my training in the military with how I dealt with those things.”

In her eight years in the Red Cross, Blunk would “go out to disaster sites, looking for people, working with them, assisting with their medical needs as far as replacement of medical equipment, visiting patients in the hospital who’d been injured,” she explained.

It was difficult duty, sometimes working 12-hour days with no days off. Her own health finally forced her to give it up in 2010 — at age 73.

 

Name: Marge Blunk.

Rank: Lieutenant colonel.

Branch: U.S. Army medical corps.

Time served: 1958-66, active duty; 1978-96, Reserve duty.

Where: While in active duty, trained in San Antonio and El Paso, Texas, and Denver; was assigned to Hawaii and Los Angeles. In the Reserves, made trips to Germany and Honduras, and served at Fort Devens, Massachusetts.

Job: Initially trained as a nurse, specializing in pediatrics, helping with families of soldiers on duty overseas. Also worked in recruiting, and in training units, particularly Reserve units.

Veterans organizations: Military Officers Association of America.