Col. Susan Corry Luz has always believed that her mission in life is to serve others. She places her trust in God, and faces each new day with optimism and a bright smile, regardless of the circumstances.
Whether it was at home caring for a physically challenged aunt, working as a Peace Corps volunteer in Brazil, comforting inner-city children at a gang-ridden high school or praying with wounded soldiers and dying Iraqi civilians in a busy field hospital, Luz says she has always been guided by her unshakable Catholic faith and the strong values instilled by her parents and the Sisters of Mercy, who were her teachers for many years.
Luz, 60, of North Scituate, R.I., who is retired from the Army Reserves, recently chronicled her journey of faith and humanitarianism in a new book, “The Nightingale of Mosul — A Nurse’s Journey of Service, Struggle and War,” coauthored with Marcus Brotherton (Kaplan, $25.95).
Keeping morale high
Luz, then a member of the Army Reserves 399th Combat Support Hospital, based at Devens, Mass., was called for duty in Iraq four years ago at the age of 56. For her meritorious service in the war-torn country, she was awarded the Bronze Star.
She joined the Army Reserves in 1983, and has participated in humanitarian efforts in many parts of the world, including assignments in Haiti, Central America and Germany.
As part of her deployment to the Middle East, Luz was trained in combat readiness at Fort McCoy in Wisconsin before being sent to Iraq, where she served as a public health and psychiatric nurse. She would not see her husband, George, for more than 500 days.
“I was in the country for 12 months,” Luz said. “That was during the bloody surge.”
At the time, Luz was the highest ranking woman serving in the Army in Iraq, where she was presented with new challenges daily.
She says she never doubted God’s motives d espite the stress and uncertainty that surrounded her.
For example, as a public health nurse during an anthrax scare, she administered vaccinations to soldiers while also serving as the hospital’s social activities director.
She planned cookouts and other events to keep morale high and to provide a brief respite from the strife caused by war.
“Mosul was a very bad place,” Luz said. “The hospital was frequently mortared.”
‘Icon of safety’
The colonel had a forewarning of how difficult life would be in Iraq when, shortly before her deployment, her husband’s young cousin Brian St. Germain, 22, a Marine on his second tour of duty in Iraq, drowned in a flash flood when the vehicle he was riding in was swept away.
“I lingered at the casket,” she recalled in the book. “ I already heard whispers behind my back. Many well-wishers knew that my reserve unit had been called to Iraq and had already hugged me goodbye as if I weren’t coming back. It was as if people sensed anew the danger of war. Brian’s death was a tragic reminder that there are a lot of ways to get injured or killed in a war.”
Just as Luz was about to return to the long line of mourners, an incident occurred that she will never forget.
“As I walked away from the casket, Brian’s mother found me and took my hand. I felt something pressed into it, a small gift from a fellow Catholic,” Luz wrote. “‘Keep this on you,’ she said. What she had placed in my hand was a crocheted angel, an icon of safety to keep with me while in Iraq.”
Luz noted that one of her most difficult roles during the conflict was being a psychiatric nurse. Many young soldiers had never been away from home; others witnessed the deaths of friends in the field; and most wondered if they’d ever return to the base when they went out on a mission. In addition to dressing wounds and giving medications, Luz also eased fears and calmed troubled hearts.
Luz said that throughout her tour of duty she was sustained by prayer and the Rosary. She asked God to give her strength during difficult times such as when “MASCAL” — the code word for mass casualties — blared over the hospital’s loudspeaker.
“A lot of Iraqis died — mothers, fathers and children,” she said, noting that when insurgents bombed civilian buses and other transport vehicles the wounded passengers were often rushed to the Army facility.
“In a hospital, we are there to treat everyone,” Luz said, adding that when she was called to care for an “expectant” — a wounded individual expected to die — all the nurse could sometimes do was administer morphine, gently hold the patient’s hand and quietly pray.
Trust in the Lord
As Luz settled into the Army hospital at the beginning of her deployment she knew that it was God’s plan for her to be in Iraq. She also trusted that the Lord would always be at her side, and would give her the peace and strength to perform her important duties.
“By 3 a.m. the line of wounded had all been taken care of,” she recalled. “My next shift began at 7 a.m. I decided to return to my CHU [container handling unit] for a few hours’ sleep. ‘Help us, God,’ I prayed as I lay down and tried to close my eyes. Surely there is more to come. I wasn’t concerned anymore that I wouldn’t be able to do my job. Strangely, I wasn’t afraid of dying, either. I had survived other tragedies in my life. I believed that God had a purpose for keeping me alive during those times. I knew I had a job to do in Iraq. My work in this war zone had officially begun.”
Luz found peace and strength every Sunday when she attended Mass and received the Eucharist. She was also sustained by reciting the Rosary and the Gloria Patri.
“Having my faith is how I got through it,” Luz said, thankful for the many blessings that she received during the time she served in Iraq and for the opportunity to return home safely to be with her loved ones.
“In our year in the Middle East, our unit treated more than 30,000 wounded, endured more than 300 mortar attacks, and handled 14 MASCAL situations,” she said. “ We saw everything from soldiers missing limbs to civilians blown up at a car dealership. I will never shake those images.”
“Serving others has always been my life’s priority, and the blessing has been mine,” she said. “The more you give, the more you get. That’s the purpose I’ve found in life. That’s the nightingale’s song I always want to sing.”
Brian J. Lowney writes from Rhode Island.
About the Author (sidebar)
Col. Susan Luz is the daughter of a decorated World War II veteran and the daughter-in-law of the late George Luz Sr., whose wartime experiences were chronicled in the popular miniseries “Band of Brothers.”
The author is a 1968 graduate of St. Mary Academy-Bay View, East Providence, R.I., which recently presented her with the Outstanding Alumna Award for 2010.
Luz earned a degree in nursing from the University of Rhode Island, and a master’s degree in public health from Boston University. She currently works with adolescent psychiatric patients.