Military experience is life changer for Army nurse
Wednesday, November 07, 2012 9:24 AM
There's a quote from an old ad for Today's Military that claimed, "The qualities you acquire while in the military are qualities that stay with you forever." Marge Fuller of rural Lanesboro would certainly agree with that.
Marge Fuller achieved her dream of becoming a nurse by joining the Army. She is shown above in her military uniform, at left, and today at her home in Lanesboro.
Veteran's Day every year means a lot to Fuller, because not only is she married to a retired career military man, she is a veteran herself. And, according to her, that military experience made a major impact on her life; her own assessment is "I wouldn't trade it for anything." It is also apparent she is a woman of confidence and integrity, who has quietly taken her deep faith with her on life's journey through the military and beyond.
Dreams of being a nurse fulfilled due to the Army
From her earliest memories, Fuller always wanted to be a nurse. After high school, she pursued that dream by enrolling in the nursing program at St. Olaf College. But "even then," she said, "St. Olaf was expensive." And her first year used up her own savings and some help from her parents. Scholarships coupled with some student loans made up the difference and got her into her sophomore year.
Reality rose to front and center, however, and she didn't think she would be able to continue past that second year. She talked about that with one of her favorite instructors, who said, "Have you considered the Army nursing program?"
Fuller's first thought was that "women didn't even think of that," and likely don't even know about it. In retrospect, she said it was perhaps meant to be: she had been named after a World War II female veteran from Harmony.
Fuller discussed the idea with her pastor, her parents and some other people whose opinions she valued. They all said the same thing: "Go for it!" She did, and went to Chicago where she was sworn into the Army Student Nurse Program.
The Army became her lifeline for her last two years in college. One of the requirements was that she had to be in school 12 months each year, but St. Olaf did not offer summer sessions at that time, so she took summer school at Luther. That actually gave her a "leg up," so to speak, because she could take courses she wouldn't have otherwise been able to experience.
Another - and bigger - advantage of the program was that she got a monthly paycheck in addition to virtually all of her tuition and living expenses being paid. It wasn't a lot, she said, but enough that she used it to pay off her student loans.
In exchange, she was obligated to serve three years of active duty. "A small price to pay for two years of college education!" she added.
Active duty brought adventures
Fuller was commissioned as a 2nd Lieutenant in December of her senior year, graduated in June of 1962, and went to boot camp in Texas in August of that year. Her first duty station was Fort Fitzsimmons in Denver, working in the pediatrics ward. One of her earliest memories of being in Denver was that it was during the Cuban missile crisis, so everyone was on high alert status. They were "glued to the TV - will we be sent?" It was an unfamiliar experience, because she and many of her friends there were new to the military.
While at Fort Fitzsimmons, she had the opportunity to request a specific location for her next duty station. She asked for California because she had always wanted to go there; a good friend picked Germany. When the orders came, of course her friend got California and she got Germany!
So she was off to Nuremberg and the 20th Station Hospital where she spent the rest of her active duty service. She was in obstetrics (OB) the whole time, and said that given the choice, she would never have selected pediatrics or OB.
"Not that I don't like kids," she said, "but pediatrics is so depressing because those were very ill children." Working in OB felt more rewarding, she said.
There were still unknowns. "Vietnam was always there," and so were their questions of "would I have to go?"
There was also the night when she and friends were eating at a downtown Nuremburg restaurant. They had just finished and were leaving when Germans came running up to them. "Go home," they said. "Your president (Kennedy) has been shot! They were so upset. And the German nurses - and we - thought now there would be another war."
The German nurses with whom Fuller worked were civilians, and they were always telling about their World War II experiences; some of them had been prisoners during the war, and had horrific stories.
Finally, Fuller asked them why they kept talking about the war? "Why not just forget it?"
They said that "We have to talk about it so people won't forget, so it doesn't happen again!"
They also told stories about their American liberators. One night they were in what was "like a basement," obviously hiding out.
"Suddenly the door quietly opened." They didn't know what was going to happen, when in came a big black American soldier, who had a candy bar in his hand for them. "He was their hero. In fact, all Americans were their heroes."
Back to Minnesota - more than once
Fuller was discharged in July of 1965 and came back to Minnesota. But not for long. She had been very happy with her career choice, thinking that maybe she would be career military- until she met Dick Fuller, who was also stationed in Nuremberg!
A German nurse in the department where Dick worked had an apartment, and invited Dick over a lot, "spoiled him." And that's where they met, and continued to do so because she was an officer and he an enlisted man, so fraternization was not allowed. But they still managed to get acquainted so well that when Dick was transferred back to the U.S. a year before her, she had that year "to think about taking on four kids" from his previous marriage. The oldest was only nine!
About six months after she returned to the U.S., they married and moved to Massachusetts. That stay was short-lived, however, because Dick received orders to Vietnam. So she and the four children packed up and moved back to Minnesota. Then, their son was born while Dick was in Vietnam.
When he returned, it was back to Germany for the whole family, this time to Wurtzberg, where they stayed for three years. Finally, to finish his military career, they spent 18 months at Fort McPherson in Atlanta, Ga.
Dick had grown up in New York state; his father had been a dairy farmer. All the time he had been in the military, his own dream was to also become a dairy farmer following his retirement from the Army. During their military years Marge and Dick had frequently visited Marge's family and hometown. When it came time to "settle down" for retirement and Dick's dream, they chose Minnesota because "Dick liked the people here." So, in 1972, they were back in Minnesota
The Fullers were looking for a farm to fulfill Dick's dairy farming dream, when Marge's father said that maybe they would want to buy "the home place." He and her mother were thinking of moving into town. And so they now live on the farm where Marge had grown up.
Challenges and impact of the military experience
When asked what she found was the biggest challenge she faced while being on active duty, Fuller did not hesitate: "Being so young." She said that she never felt she had been treated differently because she was a woman, only because she was so young. "The older nurses would often say 'when you are older you'll understand.'"
But that challenge also led to big rewards for Fuller. Her first assignment at Fort Fitzsimmons was to take over for the head nurse who was out on emergency leave. She told her boss that she couldn't due to her lack of experience.
The response was "Never say you can't!"
"Okay," she replied, "but I am going to make mistakes and ask lots of questions."
She said being in the Army "gave me invaluable nursing experience because we were never babied. We would just step in and do it. And that's become my attitude for life."
It also gave her a much greater appreciation for our country: that has been "a significant and lasting impact."
Another impact was that growing up in Lanesboro, she and her family "didn't travel or get out that much, but this made me realize we are not an isolated community. I became more aware of so many people, and more tolerant than if I had not had those experiences.
She said she got some good advice from the chief nurse who swore her in to the Army "Now you are one of us. Just remember who you are and where you came from. Don't let (the experience) change you. Take those values with you."
Broader view of the world and life
Fuller's childhood dream of being a nurse was specific: she would be a medical missionary in Africa. When she left her home town for nursing school, she never expected to come back. And because of her military experience, she had met a lot of different people, and saw big cities.
Her dad, who had "worked so hard for so little" and she had once thought "there must be an easier way." But, she learned that easier is not necessarily better.
Because of her own experiences and what she learned while serving in the military, she feels if people do come back after moving away, they "have more to give to the community because of having been exposed to something else. Everybody needs to get away."
Then she added, when they are away, they should "make the most of their experiences while there." She took every opportunity to travel when she was stationed in Europe, but not necessarily to tourist areas. Because of her friendships with German nurses she went to their homes, did things with them, and experienced their lives. She said some of her best friendships formed when she was in the military, because they were "like family."
Another long-term impact of what she learned in the military is how she was able to survive - and learn from - a horrific automobile accident in 1972. She spent two months in the hospital, at first not knowing if she would live. And when it seemed she would live after all, she applied what she had learned, making use of opportunities. This became an opportunity from which she would learn.
She asked herself, "If I had died, what would the kids remember? That my house was clean, or what we did together?" And she rearranged her everyday priorities.
Fuller didn't go to Africa to be a medical missionary, which as a child she had hoped to do. But that is okay with her, because "I met the mission field: it is the world." She realized she could make an impact wherever she was, including "back home on the farm."
Advice for today's young people
Fuller said she would encourage young people to consider service in the U.S. military. She said, "Just look at the educational benefits. Never say 'I can't afford to go to college.' There's a way for anyone to go...there's always a way to do what you want."
That seems like an echo of what the Chief Nurse who swore her in said at that ceremony so many years before! She also stressed all of the other positive experiences she had, which she never would have without the benefit of the Army experience.
Fuller still "wouldn't trade it for anything." She's grateful for the qualities she acquired which have indeed stayed with her forever. And, on this Veteran's Day, a grateful nation is saying thank you to her for her service.