Twenty years ago, Deb Aspling joined the United States Air Force Reserves as a registered nurse so she could serve her country and travel the world.
She recently got a chance to do both.
Aspling, 47, served in support of Operation Enduring Freedom, a military operation to defeat terrorism in Afghanistan.
She returned on Oct. 31 after serving nearly three months of active duty in southwest Asia as a lieutenant colonel.
"I'm lucky to have the opportunity to serve our country this way," said Aspling, who also works as Lodi Memorial Hospital's chief operating officer and vice president of patient care.
Aspling could not participate in the Desert Storm effort a decade ago because she was 6 months pregnant with her youngest child.
She was able to answer the call of duty this time. It was her first deployment in the two decades she has served in the reserves.
Aspling, commander of the air medical evacuation squadron for the 349th Air Mobility Wing at Travis Air Force Base, could not
describe her experience in great
detail because of security issues.
In her unit, she's in charge of transporting and stabilizing injured soldiers to military hospitals or picking up casualties.
The job can be challenging, especially given the working conditions of the desert region where temperatures ranged from 120 to 140 degrees during the day, Aspling said.
The air medical evacuation team made numerous trips throughout southwest Asia during her active duty stint.
Her job entails assembling 800 pounds of medical equipment to create critical care units inside airplanes in short notice with the help of two technicians.
The team was tasked with handling a wide range of problems, from military personnel who suffered heart attacks to heavy equipment injuries, she said.
The Air Force handles about 80 percent of such transports from all military branches, Aspling said.
Aspling stayed in military encampments, similar to tent cities, in different regions, she said.
"I told people I was going to the spa since there was sand and it was warm," Aspling joked.
But it was far from the luxury of such accommodations.
She bunked with other military personnel, hanging sheets up for privacy. She often had to walk up to a mile to use the restroom, using a dim flashlight to find her way in the dark. She also had 300 pounds of personal gear to tote.
"It's amazing how basic you can live and you do just fine," she said.
Despite the conditions, morale remained high among the military personnel, according to Aspling. "The spirit was incredible," she said.
When she was not on a mission, she spent her time working out to stay in top physical shape, she said.
She also took hospital papers to work on and wrote four papers for her fellowship with the American College of Healthcare Executives.
Aspling said the trip was a chance of a lifetime. "I got to see parts of the world that were not on my vacation list," she said. "But I'm very glad to be home."
She came to appreciate the spectrum of colors upon her return, comparing them to the tan tones of the desert and military uniforms. "You forget there is color to everything," she said.
As part of her reserve duties, she transports military or U.S. Department of Defense patients to military hospitals a couple weekends a month to maintain her skills.
Col. Ron Rutland, who is the operations group commander for the 349th unit, said Aspling is an outstanding example of a citizen-airman.
"Her dedication to duty and her country is what makes the United States the land of the free," he said.
Six people have been deployed from Travis Air Force Base for missions, she said.
Aspling was thankful for the hospital supporting her military service, saying it can be a hardship for some employers. "The hospital has just been great," she said.
The hospital administrator has worked almost nine years at Lodi Memorial, including five in her current position.
She has been catching up with e-mail and hospital work since returning home.
Carol Farron, Lodi Memorial's spokeswoman, said Aspling wears many hats at the hospital. She oversees nursing and diagnostic services and the eight hospital clinics and works with medical staff.
"Her responsibilities are quite hefty. We missed her a lot when she was gone. It's hard to find someone to pinch hit for her," Farron said.
A couple of hospital leaders helped out with her job while the administrator was serving overseas, she said.
Farron said hospital officials respected Aspling's call to duty and the sacrifice her family made in her absence.
"We're glad to have her home safe and sound," she said.
Aspling lives in Sacramento with her husband, Bart, who is also a commander in the air medical staging facilitator in the reserves at Travis. The couple have four grown children and an 11-year-old daughter.
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