Lt. Colonel Ruth Hunter-Reece
Ruth Hunter went to Nursing school in 1972 at St. Louis Community College at Florissant Valley. Ruth was in the very first nursing class offered at the college. Ruth began her nursing career at local nursing homes and at Normandy Hospital.
In 1979 Ruth moved to California and worked at the San Diego Naval Hospital until 1982.
From 1982-1990 Ruth worked in the private sector from doing medical evacuations at a company called AirVac International out of California. She did about 300 flights out of Mexico. When she was leaving Mexico she often had to barter her way out of Mexico. The Mexicans wanted to keep the patients in the hospital to collect money. Ruth was arrested several times in Mexico simply because it was Tuesday, or they said the paperwork was outdated. I’d have to meet with the commandant and explain the paperwork and they’d let us go.
One time we landed by mistake on a Mexican Military base. It was easy to do since they were side-by-side. The pilot said, you get out first. I said, no way, it’s your airplane! You get out first. So we get out and there are guns aimed at us! I said, Oh my God. The armed Mexican soldier in command said to the pilot, I need to see your flight plan. So he goes and gets his flight plan. The flight plan was perfectly fine. You don’t go anyway without a perfect, good flight plan. He asked me if I was the doctor. I said yes, I’m the doctor. The patents can’t leave unless the doctor signs the paperwork. The pilot looked at me and said, I thought you were the copilot. I mumbled, shut up.
So I sign the paperwork and I walk over with the flight plan and two one-hundred-dollar bills and said, here ya go. I said, we can leave now? He said, you can go. It cost me two-hundred dollars. And they like those little liquor bottles. I always carried at least fifty of those in a back of the plane. So whatever it takes.
These were American patients in Mexican Hospitals. When Americans go there, they think they are going to get the same medical care they get in the states. Wrong, wrong, wrong! We’ve been in quite a few pickles down there. We went all over the world. Families would call AirVac to get their loved ones out of the country. There was two ways to do it. There was cheap (Cheyenne Turbo Prop) or cheerful (jet). Most would opt for the jet. It was quite expensive. Often companies and families would say, I don’t care what it costs, go get them. In the end, I became a chief flight nurse there.
One-time Ruth was called upon to impersonate a co-pilot to get out of Mexico. Ruth had a number of harrowing events while flying with AirVac International. From attending patients in the air, on the ground and even on tuna boats, her private sector experience would serve her and our country well in the years ahead.
Major Ruth U.S. Air Force 1989
In 1989 Ruth entered the Air Force Reserves. She was 43 years old. She was inducted as a major because she had 20 years of trauma experience. At that time they put you in and set your rank according to your experience. They don’t do that anymore. I signed up to join the reserves in California. Never did duty in California because my grandmother died. My mom asked me to move back to Missouri. I put my belongings in storage and I moved back to Missouri with my mother.
Operation Desert Storm 1990
I got a telephone call one day in December of 1990 from a Colonel Ingram, who said, “Is this Major Hunter?” I said, yes. I don’t know a Colonel Ingram, He said, you will. He said you are being deployed for Operation Desert Storm. I said I haven’t even done duty, I don’t even have a uniform. He said, well you’re going to be busy. Colonel Ingram told Ruth one time, just pretend it’s a job. You’ve been a supervisor before. I said, not in the military. He said, nothing to it. We’ll have a plane ticket for you at the airport. Come to the unit and we’ll take it from there. Me and my mom stayed up to 1:00 AM in the morning sewing all the little “do dads” on the uniform hoping we got then right. He said well you need to go change your clothes don’t you. I said yeah, yes sir. I went in and put everything on. I had no officers training at all. So anyway, they put me in because I had 20 years of trauma center experience. So the next day he was going over the assignments, and he asked if I knew where Knob Noster Missouri is? I said, yes, I do. And he said, well I think that is where you’re going to go. I said, no way. You put me in because I had 20 years trauma experience and you’re going to send me to Knob Noster Missouri. He said, yes ma’am.
So anyway, I flew back home, and they called me up and said this is when you’ll need to report. I said okay. They said, Lt. Jimmy Dixon will be going with you. I said, who is that? They said, you’ll find out. So we got in a car and drove to Knob Noster Missouri and Whiteman Air Force Base. Ruth remembers a few funny stories along the way. When she was first deployed, she didn’t know the Air Force ranks. Ruth said, Lt Dixon helped me quite a bit. When I first got in, he told me when I do this (elbowed Ruth in the side) you salute. They won’t be saluting me. I had my airman’s manual always handy which I did read. And in the reserves, we train, train, train.
We got to Whiteman Air Force Base and at that time there was nothing there. No B1 bombers, nothing there! They had a four-bed emergency room, manned by technicians and a doctor. That was it. So I was there for 8-9 weeks and the war technically ended. So we got back in the car and drove back to March Air Force Base California we thought get out of the Air Force, off active duty. I was getting all my stuff together, they called and said the chief nurse at the hospital wants to see you. I wondered why. She said, get in your dress blues and get over and see her. So I went over there. I said, ma’am you wanted to see me, she said yes. She said, I have a deal for you. Are you willing to stay on active duty and man the ICU until my people get back from Bahrain? I said sure. So I ended up doing 6 months during Operation Desert Storm.
When I was 44 in 1991, I went to survival training at Sheppard Air Force Base in San Antonio. What was I thinking, Ruth said? She had volunteered, saying that is something I could really use. That was the hardest two weeks of my entire life. We didn’t read the class description very well. That’s where I learned not to go through town with your uniform on. You are constantly saluting. So I ran back to town and got in civvies. It was tough. They woke us up every morning to Christmas music, so you know it was cold. We had to repel, and we came up over the hill and there is a fifty-foot water tower you had to go up. I was with an intern who cried the whole time. She said, I can’t do that, I can’t do that. I said, if I’m going to do that, you are going to do that. The instructor said, anybody scared? I said yes. He said, you go first. I said, what? He said, just don’t look down. I said, I have no intention of looking down. So we got up there and he said hold on to this and don’t let go or you’ll be very upset if you do. So I have a death grip on these two ropes. So he says, back up, I want your heels off the wall. No, Yeah, No, Yeah, No, Yeah. So I get part way down, I figure out, I got this, I got this . So I go down like Spiderman because all I want to do is get down. So I get down and he okay, you can go to lunch. We had to pull our across a ravine and I said oh my God, and he said come on major, I can read the hands on your watch, do it! When I go home, I was living with my mom, and I was in the bathroom and my said, what was that noise? I said, I’m sorry I was kicking the seat. She goes, why? I was checking for spiders.
Back to St. Louis
In 1991 when I returned from active duty, I went to Charleston to be a flight nurse. I was only there two months and they discontinued the ferry that went back and forth to Lambert. So I had to get into a different unit, so I went to Scott Air Force Base. I was at Scott AFB for 7 years where I made Lieutenant Colonel. At Scott, I was the Critical Care Flight Leader. Later I became, assistant Chief Nurse. I learned a lot there. I felt I had a pretty good footing when they asked me to apply for the Chief Nurse position. When I applied, the 920th was one of the biggest reserve units in the Air Force. So they have two assistant Chief Nurses. So I’m sitting there, I’m being interviewed by them and they said do you have any questions? I said, Oh, I sure do. I said, any reason why you two don’t want this job? They said, Oh, um, not the right time for us. So I come to find out, the unit is on probation for infractions, lots of them. So I thought, OMG, what have I done?
Ruth jumped in with both feet. I’d ask questions, like why don’t we have any equipment here? I’d hear, the last Chief Nurse said we didn’t need them. I said, what was wrong with her? They had nothing to do their training with. I said, here’s the deal. Give me a list of what you need. Well, these lists are coming in and these lists are huge! I’d just take them, one by one. I said, if we don’t use this money, you don’t get it next year. So you have to order some stuff. In order for a unit to be deployed their manning (Unit Manning Document) has to be 100%. So they’re telling me they haven’t had a psych nurse for six years. I said, well why not? They said, well I guess none of them have applied. Well if they don’t apply, go look for them. There was lots of thing I could do with the manning document to get it to 100%.
I got the unit turned around and in the next two years we got an outstanding award for the unit. In the history of that unit, they had never been deployed. Now they are the most deployed in the Air Force Reserve. Because now they have equipment, they have training and now experience.
Ruth continued her nursing career at Christian Northeast and Northwest and Barnes St. Peters until 1996. In 1996 Ruth and Roger were married and moved to Tampa. Ruth resumed her nursing career in Tampa. I worked there as a kind of liaison between the chief nurse.
Honduras Humanitarian Mission 1996
Our annual tour is 15 days every year. We all went to Honduras in 1996 and set up a medical clinic. It was at a Honduras Military Base. We’d take a helicopter out and set down and there would be 100 people surrounding. We would pull teeth, put casts on, take casts off. We had an orthopedic clinic that treated patients about 12 hours every other day. We had to break arms and reset the breaks. We have a little girl about 10-11 months old whose feet were so turned in bad, she would have never walked without our help. The people knew when they were going to be there. One woman in a village dragged her son who couldn’t walk over a mile to get treatment. Ruth got it in her mind that this child is going to get a wheel chair. She called back home to the trauma center where she worked. Her friend reached out to her church who donated a wheel chair. They asked what else was needed and Ruth put together a list and a Colonel brought wheel chair and medical equipment it to her. We did a lot of good things while we were there.
Operation Enduring Freedom 2003
I worked in Tampa until a friend of Roger’s called and said Patrick Air Force Base needed a chief nurse. So I went over and talked to them and I got the job. I arrived at Patrick Air Force Base in Florida in April of 2003. I was there a week, before I got deployed again for Operation Enduring Freedom. Though I was deployed, I remained stateside. I was sent to Fort Gordan to work on ICMAC which is a War Plan at Bush Field. It was very interesting. We took over a hotel. There was nobody there but us. No one manning the hotel. They would bring us food and we were working on the war plan. We were supposed to integrate the public health part of it, into the war plan. It had ended up on the shelf for years. So I go to the command center and they say, here’s what I need from you. So we were to do a site survey and we were planning on wounded coming in to us at Bush Field. At the same time, they had the PGA event , The Masters at Augusta National in Georgia going on. Here we are trying to interface at the airport and they had all these private jets all around. It was quite interesting.
2007 Operation Iraqi Freedom
In 2007 Ruth was asked to deploy once again for Operation Iraqi Freedom. When they called me, they said we need a chief nurse in Iraq. Would you be willing to go? I said, do you know how old I am? She said, yes ma’am, I know exactly how old you are. You won’t be sixty for a few more months. I said, okay, I’ll go, so I went. Before Ruth could be deployed overseas, I had to learn how to fire the Beretta. You have to be qualified on that gun to leave the country. Like many things in my military career, I learned by doing.
We arrived at Balad Air Base. As soon as we got off the aircraft we said, what were we thinking. Everybody said the same thing. After they checked us in, they said go and get to your vehicles and we’ll take you to the pod where you’ll be living. It was raining like crazy. There were several inches of mud and water standing in all the housing area. Suddenly I heard gun shots and I said, Oh dear. I went around the corner and stepped on one of the jeep tracks and hit the barrier with my arm. Got up, got going and finally found my place to live. I had a roommate, and tried to creep in. She said, I can hear you. I apologized saying I’m sorry. It was very late. I had a great roommate. She later found out her arm was fractured.
Ruth worked in the CASF or Contingency Aeromedical Staging Facility. It was our job to bring patients out of the hospital to the CASF, stabilize them and get them ready for transport either to CONUS (CONtigUouS States or District of the Columbia) or mostly Germany. The CASF was a regular building where we had 50 beds. Patients would be there for a few days depending on the airplane routes. It was our job to input he patients information in the Air Force tracking software TRACES (Tri-Service Automated Cost Engineering System) as soon as they went to the flight line. We knew where any patient was and at any moment. We had about 15 evacs every month. We were in charge of all the ambulances because we took those to the hospital to bring the wounded soldiers back or to the flight line. Ruth was in charge at night. Eighty percent of the flights went out at night.
While in Iraq, Ruth heard gunfire for the first time. There were many nights we laid on the tarmac face down because the Iraqis were shooting at the base. Ruth said, they do like to shoot at the aircraft. We had to be very cautious getting the criticals and walking wounded seated in the aircraft.
There was always a threat from incoming fire. One night about 10:00, I was giving a report to the oncoming nurse, when all of a sudden, a big voice said, incoming, incoming, incoming so everybody hits the floor. And we’re laying there, when one of the young nurses walks in and says, hey what’s up? I said, Tracy, get on the floor, get on the floor! She said, well I want to tell you what I saw. I said Tracy, get on the floor! She’s on the floor and said, well I just wanted to tell you what I saw. Ruth asked her, what did you see? She said, I say a shooting star! I said, Tracy oh Tracy, just wait we’ll talk. When they said, all clear, all clear I said, can I see you in the office? I said, I don’t think it was a shooting star you saw. She said, I’m sure of it. Ruth said, let me explain how it works. At night when the aircraft takes off, they shoot flares out the back (counter measures) for the heat seeking missiles so the aircraft doesn’t get shot down. And Tracy said, what does that have to do with a shooting star? I said, Oh my. You didn’t see a shooting star. How could you when all that was going on. I don’t think she ever got it. It was probably an IPG (handheld aimed or guided missile).
There wasn’t much to do there on your day off. There was a gym. But I wasn’t much into that. They had a café. The Green Bean was a little trailer. We really looked forward to getting that cappuccino every morning at the Green Bean. There would be a line out the door. I had just got mine. In the middle of our housing there was a smoking pit with seats around it. So I’m sitting there. I was a little early. I was sitting with a guy with the command center. We were just chit chatting and all of a sudden, we heard, incoming, incoming and I went oh man. We took off running. He said, come on Ruth. We dove behind this concrete barrier. He turned around and said, Ruth are you okay? I said, no I’m not. He said, what’s wrong, what happened? I said, I spilled my whole latte! Oh crap he said, I’ll get you another one, I’ll get you another one. Your latte costs what your per diem was for the whole day.
Sometimes the Iraqis would infiltrate the base. One day I was in the command center. In the command center they have all these phones. I was standing there waiting for my roommate when everyone of those phones went off at the same time. Which tells me the command center has been infiltrated. What they do is let some of the Iraqis work on the base. Well you know they don’t do a good background check on them. One day I was getting ready for work. You’ve got a flak jacket on, you’ve got a helmet. You got a backpack, your gun whatever else. I came out of my quarters into this big area. There is usually a lot of people there. Well, this day there was no one but me. I looked over and this guy, definitely an Iraqi, but I didn’t know who he was measuring steps with his feet. We use GPS and high-tech stuff to measure. They still mark it off by stepping it off. I said to myself, he’s marking it off, where to place the bombs. And then he’d go the other way and when he turned, he looked at me, I looked at him. I said oh my! That’s not what I said, but…. I said, what do I do? What do I do? He just froze in place. He didn’t know what to do and I didn’t know what to do. So I thought, if he moves, he’s a dead man. So he started backing up, I pulled out my gun and the clip, placed the clip into the gun. As soon as he heard the clip go in the gun, he took off. And I’m standing there. I’m still don’t like to talk about it. I thought, OMG, I almost shot a person. If he would have continued towards me and acting that weird I probably would have shot him. I thank God I didn’t have to shoot.
Ruth retired from the Air Force Reserves in 2009 at 62. Ruth said, she thoroughly enjoyed her experiences and her move from nursing to military back to nursing. I got through it. Sometimes I wonder how, but I did. I learned a lot. it was an interesting career and I wouldn’t change a thing. It was a learning experience every single day.
Ruth still serves today. She volunteers at the free clinic in Lake St. Louis for people that are mainly uninsured.
Timeline (Informational use only)
Please contact the St. Charles County Veterans Museum Oral History project at email@example.com or call 636-294-2657 for more information and lets’ talk. We want to hear from you because we know…Every Veteran has a story.
1972 graduated Nursing School
1972-1981 Worked at Normandy Hospital, Christian Northeast, Northwest, Barnes-Jewish St. Peters.
1982-1990 AirEvac International
1990 Desert Storm
1991 Charleston as Flight Nurse
1991 Scott Air Force Base promoted to Ltc as Critical Flight Care Leader. Working at St. Louis area hospitals
1996 Met Roger, married moved to Tampa. Nursing liaison between chief nurse and staff.
2003 Enduring Freedom at Fort Gordon (stateside)
2007 Operation Iraqi Freedom in Balad Air Base