January 18, 2023

First Air National Guard Nurse Awarded Distinguished Flying Cross Medal

First Air National Guard Nurse Awarded Distinguished Flying Cross Medal

Image Sources: U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs

For only the second time in history, a Registered Nurse has been awarded a Distinguished Flying Cross by the Air National Guard. She is also the first Air National Guard nurse to ever receive the award, according to the National Guard Association of the United States

Katie Lunning is an ICU nurse manager at the Central Iowa VA Health Care System as well as a Minnesota Air National Guard air transport nurse, Maj. with the 133rd Airlift Wing. She was awarded the Flying Cross for her work and service during a six-month tour that she went on in Qatar in July of 2021. Lunning will officially receive her award on January 7, 2023, at the 133rd Maintenance Group North Hangar in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

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Journey to Nursing

Lunning began her journey into nursing by first entering the healthcare field as a combat medic with the Minnesota Army National Guard directly out of high school. Finding her passion, she then decided to pursue nursing through the Minnesota Air National Guard and received a direct commission as an officer. 

She joined the Minnesota VA while still a student nurse and graduated from Bethel University in St. Paul, MN with her BSN. Once graduated, she gained employment in the ICU as an RN. Clearly, as someone who moves up the ranks quickly, she then became the ICU nurse manager at the VA Central Iowa Health Care System in Des Moines.

“I appreciate all of my experience at the VA, my VA training and my VA ICU nurse experience,” Lunning said. “That was really where I got the training that it took to accomplish the mission. My whole background has been at the VA, so I'm appreciative of everything the VA has given me, and I'm very grateful to not only take care of veterans on the front end, but I'm also very passionate about working at the VA and continuing the care for the veterans here at home.”

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A Hero in Action

The U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs released a press release about this historic moment from an American Hero, detailing exactly what she and her team went through. Lunning was part of a three-person Critical Care Air Transport team that would pick up and transport the most critically injured and ill patients from Kabul and Afghanistan, all while flying directly into active combat that included mass injuries from suicide bombings occurring at the time. For instance, her team participated in saving lives while the U.S. evacuated from Afghanistan, when a student who joined the Islamic State militant strapped 20 pounds of explosives to himself and exploded at Abbey Gate, the entrance to the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan. 

After the suicide bomb went off in August at Abbey Gate during the evacuation of Kabal—a tragedy that killed 170 Afghan civilians and 13 American service people—Lunning described how her team was the first critical care air transport team to arrive on the scene. 

“It was the largest medical evacuation out of that coalition hospital ever, and very dangerous on the ground. We had to leave the airplane to go get our patients as well,” she said in the press release. “We took injured Marines and Afghan civilians who really weren't flight worthy, but there was no choice. We just had to get them out of there. So, a lot of medical events occurred on the airplane, but we ended up being able to safely deliver everybody to Landstuhl, Germany [for further medical care].”

Following the explosion, the Taliban moved in and Afghanistan eventually fell to their control. But Lunning and her team did not stop working and were able to evacuate more than 20 patients from the scene. Travis Air Force Base described that all the flight crews who worked that day delivered every patient evacuated alive to the German hospitals for further care. 

The rescue ended up being one of the largest human airlifts in United States history and she did it all while onboard a C-17 Globemaster III.

Part of a Team

Just like you would expect out of a nurse, Lunning of course also described how her heroic actions were a true team effort and how focusing on the immediate job in front of them helped them to be able to deal with a disastrous situation. 

“[In that moment] I was really just focusing on the job,” Lunning told the VA. “We kind of came up with a mantra. We would say, ‘We can't control what's happening on the ground and what we can control is our jobs.’ So, we focused very much on getting people home. We all have kids right around the same age that we wanted to get home to. So, we just focused on getting everybody home to their people because everybody's going to have a why, right. We talked about that and how it was our role to get them back to their reason for being there.”

Lunning’s team spirit extends to her partnership with her husband, Joshua Lunning, who also serves his country as the command sergeant major of the Recruiting and Retention Battalion at the Iowa Army National Guard. The two share a 9-year-old daughter and have a home base in Urbandale, Iowa, where they moved in 2019 as a result of her husband’s promotion with the Iowa Army National Guard RRB.

The Foundation for Women Warriors also posted the many other service people who were recognized, including 27 airmen who received the Distinguished Flying Cross award:

MOOSE 98 crew:

  • Lt. Col. Raul R. Montiague

  • Lt. Col. William A. Street

  • Maj. Katelyn E. Dunahoe

  • Maj. Katie B. Lunning

  • Maj. Pete N. Traylor

  • Maj. Dominick A. Vitale

  • Capt. Cody M. Apfel

  • Capt. Jedd E. Dillman

  • Capt. David L. Stuppy

  • Capt. Spencer D. Yacos

  • Master Sgt. Matthew A. Newman

  • Tech. Sgt. Matthew D. Keefer

  • Tech Sgt. Michael A. Raucci

  • Staff Sgt. Idaliz Alicea

  • Staff Sgt. Katherine Rosa Orellana

  • Staff Sgt. Courtney Smith

  • Senior Airman Mario Hernandez

  • Senior Airman Deniece A. Lobban

  • Senior Airman Alexis C. Sanchez

REACH 651 crew:

  • Maj. Alexander A. Arcidiacono

  • Maj. Drew P. Dela Cruz

  • 1st Lt. Ryan S. Corvin

  • Staff Sgt. Brandon S. Jensen

  • Staff Sgt. E-Quantay L. Mason

  • Senior Airman Kimberly S. Heiser

  • Senior Airman Matthew S. Williams

  • Airman 1st Class Jeremy Eda

While not every service or flight nurse may make history as Lunning did, every nurse who serves is certainly a hero. You can learn more about becoming a nurse for free through the military, or serving as a military nurse and flight nurse

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