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No Excuses: The Rise of an Amazing Woman in the U.S. Army

We had just moved into our first home. It was a brand-new neighborhood on a quaint cul-de-sac in Little River. We were excited to be in a home of our own and couldn’t wait to meet our neighbors. We could already tell it was a nice mix of people: young couples just starting families or still enjoying the newlywed lifestyle, working singles and business owners, new retirees, and some that had been enjoying retirement (and gardening and golf) for a few years…and then there was Karen!

My husband met her first. He came in from going to the mailbox one early morning and announced he had just met our new neighbor. He looked a bit flushed (I thought it was just the SC heat that we were still getting used to) but when I said “Oh, what’s she like?” his face turned beet red and said, “Well, she’s a Lieutenant Colonel, an ER nurse, she’s married to a Roger who likes to play golf, has a dog and a few cats, and, um, she was wearing a silk robe.” I loved her immediately…anyone who can make my husband blush is my kind of woman!

Our little neighborhood was small and friendly, so we got to know each other very well. Karen was THAT neighbor – the one who got things done, the one you’d go to for advice (medical, marital, and any other kind), the one who didn’t want to hear excuses, the one who made promises and kept them. I started wondering, where did this blonde dynamo come from? What’s her story?

Karen graduated high school from her small hometown of Rossford, Ohio in 1963. When other teens her age were trying to figure out their lives, potentially being drafted or holding peaceful protests to end Vietnam Karen left home in the middle of the night and made a beeline to the corner bus stop for the 12-hour journey to Fort McClellan in Alabama. She planned to join the Women’s Army Corps training. There was just one problem: Karen was 18 and at that time women had to be 21 to enlist without parental consent. She had left a note for her family and it didn’t take long for Karen’s father to find her with an urgent message for her to “come back home.” Karen was adamant about enlisting and her father reluctantly gave in and signed the consent forms for Karen to begin her military training that would turn into an illustrious career.

Never one to not have a backup plan, Karen had applied and been accepted to Ohio State University. Karen followed her interest in Nursing and after a year in the Women’s Army Corps, she became a certified nursing assistant. Fortunately, her acceptance to OSU was still open and Karen became a Buckeye in 1964 where she earned her bachelor’s degree in Nursing while still on active duty.

In 1967, the Vietnam War was raging, and Karen was right in the middle of it. A major escalation in the war called the Tet Offensive happened not too long after Karen’s arrival and although she had dealt with trauma, blood, and death, this took it to a whole new level. She was now seeing young men torn to pieces as they proudly served their country. It must’ve been a relief when her Vietnam tour was over and her position in the Army Nurse Corps had her heading stateside. Little did Karen know she was about to care for one of the most prominent men in history.

Karen’s new post was the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, DC, the U.S. Army’s flagship medical center in 1968. She made such an impression on the then Surgeon General of the U.S. Army Leonard Heaton by denying him, a high ranking official, a visit with one of her patients that he transferred Karen to his floor to look after a very special patient. It was there that she met and cared for the 34th President of the United States and Five Star General Dwight D. Eisenhower. Karen spent nearly a year as General Eisenhower’s caregiver and one of my favorite photos shows a laughing Karen with the General waving an American flag at his hospital room window. What she was laughing at I’ll never tell but I will say if the hospital had an HR department, someone may have been called into the office!

Just before being stationed in Hawaii, Karen spent some time on nurse recruiting duty. Peaceful protests had turned more dangerous as the country entered the 1970’s and Karen saw firsthand what protestors were capable of. She experienced everything from anti-war graffiti messages covering her military vehicle to being firebombed as she made her way through the city of Chicago. Four years in Hawaii seemed like a reprieve from all of that and it was there that she fell in love with Hawaii, found her nursing niche in the emergency department, and received her master’s degree from the University of Hawai’i. Karen’s adventurous spirit and passion for travel took her on Army duty all over the country and in 1987, she earned the rank of Lieutenant Colonel.

Karen retired from the military but eventually went back to the career that she loved and at 75 years young, she’s still hustling around the ER department. Over the past few years, she did a traveling nursing stint that took her to a few states outside of her Florida home base. Whether Karen caught the travel bug being in the military or maybe she was just born with it, she’s definitely “not going to be happy unless she’s going Mach 2 with her hair on fire” (as Kelly McGillis says to Tom Cruise in “Top Gun”).

Karen and her husband Roger have since moved from the Grand Strand to Pensacola, Florida, but have entrusted me to care for their little one-bedroom jewel on the beach in North Myrtle. When Karen isn’t saving lives, she and Roger are hopping military junkets (what a perk!) to destinations of their dreams (Hawaii still being one of their favorites, but they go to Europe and Australia like I travel from Little River to Murrells Inlet!) It has been my privilege and honor to know Lieutenant Colonel Karen Vinson-VanHouter. She speaks her mind; doesn’t take no for an answer; lives by the motto “actions speak louder than words”; is a true Patriot (loves, loves, LOVES our country!) and although I haven’t seen her at the mailbox lately, I’m sure she still looks great in that silk robe!

PS: Karen if you’re reading this, I know what you’re thinking: “Gina, did you get the extra filters for the air-conditioning unit, have another key made, make sure the last guest had enough beach towels for the kids, and leave a note for the couple that is celebrating their anniversary at the beach…and of course the answer is Yes! (No excuses)

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