Sandy Wilhelm, New Haven, feels a connection to the American flag that perhaps only other veterans can understand.
A retired major of the U.S. Air Force Reserves, Wilhelm served 17 years from 1989 to 2006, which included more than three months in Muscat, Oman, during Desert Storm in the early ’90s and a two-week humanitarian mission to Honduras, at Christmas in 1994.
Wilhelm said while away from home, the flag became a great symbol to her.
“It’s a piece of home and that’s why I get very emotional about the flag,” she said. “Our flag, our eagle, anything that connects you to home when you’re away from home is a lifeline.
“Without that lifeline you wouldn’t survive very long in those desperate, stressful times.”
Wilhelm’s service in the military seemed almost destined from the start. She was born the same year the U.S. Air Force was founded, 1947, and she comes from a family of veterans.
“My grandma was a Hood, so we are related to Gen. Hood of Fort Hood, Texas,” said Wilhelm. “I think ‘Stonewall’ (Jackson) is in there somewhere too, but I can’t really verify that. I’ve just heard stories in the family.
“But we do have a long history of being in the military,” she said, proudly.
Career in Nursing
Long before she decided to enlist in the Air Force Reserves, Wilhelm made a career in nursing.
She spent eight years studying nursing in a two-year program at Lincoln Land Community College in Springfield, Ill. She worked full-time until she had to complete clinicals, which forced her to take off from work.
The summer she started her clinicals, her house caught on fire.
“It destroyed everything,” Wilhelm said.
Determined not to give up on her dream of becoming a nurse, Wilhelm told her husband that “come hell or high water” she was going to earn her degree.
Wilhelm started out in the operating room as a scrub technician. Eventually she made her way to the Carlinville Area Hospital as the nursing director of surgery recovery room.
Then she spent seven years as a traveling OR (operating room) nurse.
“I was all over the country,” she said. “I’ve been in the biggest university hospitals.”
In her career, Wilhelm worked in 19 different hospitals.
As a traveling OR nurse, she helped perform a liver transplant in Barnes-Jewish Hospital in St. Louis and a heart transplant in Memphis. She remembers that day being very emotional.
“The emotions that wrapped around me when I was carrying that heart,” she started, “it was so tangible because I felt the emotions of the family of the person who lost the heart and I felt the emotion of the family who was going to get the heart.”
Wilhelm’s work as a traveling OR nurse overlapped during her service in the Air Force Reserves.
Her traveling contracts would be good for three months at a time. If the destinations were close enough, she could drive to her assignment and still be back in time for work on base.
Sometimes the assignments weren’t that close, and in those situations she would have to fly. One weekend it cost her $500. That’s when she decided it wasn’t working out financially.
“I have been an OR supervisor and director both in civilian and military life,” she said. “I’ve really enjoyed my careers, both of them. That’s why I’m so satisfied now in my retirement. I’ve been there (and) I’ve done it all.”
Service in Honduras Was ‘High Point’
Wilhelm was in her 40s when she decided to enlist in the Air Force Reserves.
“They were short operating room nurses, and they needed them desperately, and I thought one day, ‘Well, why not?’,” Wilhelm recalled.
She went to Scott Air Force Base, found a medical recruiter and joined the reserves as an OR nurse.
Wilhelm rose through the ranks during her time in the Air Force, from first lieutenant to captain to major.
Looking back on her service, Wilhelm said her two weeks in Honduras are what she’s most proud of.
“Now that was really the high point of my career because those people were so needy,” she said. “They were so courteous. They would line up in huge, long lines and wear their Sunday best and wait in the hot sun all day long to see the doctors.”
Her experience in Honduras left her the most satisfied.
“I felt like we were really needed there,” Wilhelm said. “They were desperate. This is all they had. Their country had been devastated with internal wars and politics. They had no industry.”
Wilhelm remembered the people there, even the babies, didn’t cry when the U.S. nurses injected them.
“Those people are so strong,” Wilhelm said.
It was around Christmas time when Wilhelm was there, and she remembers their joy in celebrating the holiday.
“Most of them lived on a side of a hill with a tin shack,” Wilhelm said. “They had nothing, but they celebrated Christmas. They would tie ribbons, Easter eggs (or) anything they could think of on trees outside. It was really amazing. They celebrated it any way they could.”
Away From Home
During Desert Storm, Wilhelm remembers the camp in Oman having only two outgoing telephone lines, which made it difficult to communicate with family back home.
There were more incoming lines, but all of the sevicemen and -women had to call their family or friends and give them an extension number to call back.
Also complicating the communication process was the 12-hour time difference between Oman and home.
Wilhelm said there would be a long line of people at 3 a.m. waiting to call family members and then they each only had two minutes to talk.
“That was very difficult,” Wilhelm said. “Letters were the most important thing to us.”
‘Nothing Like the Military’
Wilhelm has only good things to say of her time in the military and is proud to see her grandson, Ira Black, a senior at Washington High School who is in the NJROTC program, continuing the family tradition. He is planning to enlist in the Marines after graduation
“There is nothing like the opportunities that you can get in the military,” said Wilhelm. “You can do anything. You can go anywhere. There’s so many affiliations. There’s so many opportunities. I just can’t get over it.
“The military is like a whole city in one,” she said. “If you went to a big city with all the different companies and everything you could go to, the military is that way only it’s worldwide. You never know how far you’ll go or what you’ll do.
“I never anticipated going out of the country and here I’ve been over 10,000 miles away from home in a war. I mean I wouldn’t have gotten that opportunity anywhere else,” said Wilhelm.
She was honorably discharged from the Air Force Reserves in 2006.
“I didn’t get 20 years in,” she remarked. “I could kick myself for not doing that.”
Wilhelm has a room that she calls the heart and soul of her home.
“It represents all of my military memorabilia and all of the things that I’ve done and accomplished in my life,” she said.
Pictures of her brothers, biological father and uncles line one of the walls.
Wilhelm has two brothers — Phillip Millerd, a full bird colonel in the Marines, and Frank Millerd, a retired lieutenant colonel from the Army. Frank was in Kuwait the same time Wilhelm was serving in the Gulf War.
He flew Apache helicopters and was a squadron leader for the helicopter unit in Fort Campbell, Ky.
Wilhelm’s grandmother’s brothers-in-law were both in the Army in World War I, although she’s not sure in what units.
Her father was a Merchant Marine in World War II, and her aunt’s husband, Bill Russell, was a Seabee during World War II.
“One of his missions was a reconnaissance mission,” Wilhelm said. “His plane happened to be within the area of the Enola Gay when they dropped the bomb.”
She said the crew was in a bomber plane and they all saw the explosion.
“They thought it was a big ammo dump that had gotten blown up,” she said. “When their plane got back all these people ran out and grabbed these guys and ran them through a cleaning process for chemical warfare.”
The other three walls of the room are filled with honors and memories of Wilhelm’s experiences — a newspaper article about her work in Honduras and many photos of the people and places where she worked.
“I hang all that stuff up on my wall because I have a short memory,” said Wilhelm. “When you get to be my age, your memory gets a little shorter.”
There’s even a library. Wilhelm said she enjoys a good murder mystery.
One book in particular stands out from the others, “My American Journey” by Colin Powell.
“Colin Powell is my hero,” Wilhelm said. “That (book) is an awesome biography because he talks about how to succeed in your careers and in your life. He’s just full of leadership tips.
“Because I was an operating room nurse, we work as a team. We do a lot in leadership,” she explained.
After being discharged from the military, Wilhelm continued her career as an OR nurse at Mercy Hospital until she officially retired in 2012.
“I made a promise to myself when I retire that’s it,” she said. “I’ll live on less because I want a real life of my own.”
Wilhelm admits she thinks about renewing her nursing license every now and again, but the thought of taking another CPR class stops her from following through.
“I was not taking another CPR course,” she said. “I have two total knee (replacements) and four stents in my heart so please don’t fall down in front of me because I’d probably be the next one on the ground.”