When decorated combat nurse Colleen Leners returned home from Iraq, she got good news and bad. She discovered she had received a Bronze Star Medal for heroism and merit in a combat zone, and she also got a diagnosis of cancer—a disease she says was caused by prolonged exposure to toxic fumes from a burn pit near her military base in Tikrit.
After years providing care for soldiers and veterans, Leners, DNP, APRN, FNP, became a patient in the Veterans Affairs (VA) system, an experience that gave her an invaluable perspective into veterans’ care. “I had to go through the whole VA process,” she recalls. “I literally got to see health care from the battlefield through medical transition to the VA health care system and civilian life.”
Leners emerged from the experience in good health (her cancer is now in remission) and with a deeper connection to her patients. I was able to speak “a little more honestly” with patients about what to expect in the VA health care system, she says. She also developed new insights into how to improve care for veterans, ideas she is developing and promoting as a Robert Wood Johnson Foundation (RWJF) Health Policy Fellow (2014-2015) in Washington, D.C.
Leners would like to see the Departments of Defense and Veterans Affairs share access to electronic medical records so patients don’t have to repeat their health histories as often as they do now—a process that can be difficult for patients with post-traumatic stress disorder and other war-related conditions. She also wants to find policy solutions to reduce long delays in care for veterans, which have been highly publicized in recent months.
During her fellowship, Leners is working in the office of Sen. John Thune, a member of the Senate Finance Committee, which has jurisdiction over Medicare, Medicaid, and other health programs. The experience has broadened her focus beyond veterans. “I came here with a focus on health care for veterans, but I’m looking more broadly at community health now,” she says. “How can we make changes to improve life not just for one segment of the population but for everyone?”
The daughter of a nurse, Leners got her start in health care at an early age. One day, during a raging flu epidemic in the 1970s, Leners’ mother found herself short-staffed at the long-term care facility where she worked and asked Leners, then a teenager, if she would help out. Leners said she would—and loved every minute of it.
After graduating from high school, Leners earned her associate degree in nursing and got a job in the emergency department of a hospital in San Bernardino, Calif. She later went on to earn her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in nursing, followed by a doctorate in nursing practice (DNP).
In 1994, Leners joined the U.S. Navy Reserve, which allowed her to teach trauma care throughout the United States and abroad. When she joined the Reserve, she didn’t realize a war was on the horizon, but she was prepared to serve when it arrived. In 2004, she joined the U.S. Army so she could take her knowledge of trauma and family medicine to the troops in Iraq, who were in desperate need of both specialties.
She deployed in 2005, and, after leaving her three children in her mother’s care, flew to Tikrit, an embattled city 80 miles north of Baghdad. She set up camp in a bombed-out shelter with no roof and managed outpatient services at a combat support hospital, overseeing clinic and triage during mass casualties and directing a team of 40 physicians and other personnel. “It was a little bit like M.A.S.H.,” she says. “When a helicopter came in, everybody ran. When no helicopters came, we thanked God.”
Never one to turn down a plea for help, Leners also volunteered to leave the security of her base to care for Iraqi women and children in nearby communities and teach basic emergency medical care to U.S. and Iraqi military members. She also served in an informal role as her unit’s “Dura Mater” (which means “tough mother” in Latin), dispensing advice and counsel to young nurses and other personnel. Her efforts over her 14-month deployment earned her the gratitude and admiration of her fellow troops and the Bronze Star.
Looking back, Leners does not regret her decision to serve, even though it meant she came back a changed person. Having seen people at their “absolute best and absolute worst,” she views the world differently now and says she isn’t as “happy-go-lucky” as she once was. “Looking back, I can laugh, but there were a lot of days we cried,” she says.
Having overcome the trauma of both war and cancer, Leners spends more of her time these days looking forward to a bright future. She is enjoying life in the nation’s capital and plans to seek out a leadership position at a non-governmental organization when she completes her fellowship this spring. “As a friend of mine said, I’ve got at least another career in me.”