By Sonja L. Hanson, NMCSD & NMW Public Affairs
SAN DIEGO (October 8, 2009) - Rear Adm. Christine M. Bruzek-Kohler was awarded the St. Thomas of Villanova Alumni Medal during the Villanova University Summit on Leadership Oct. 8.
Bruzek-Kohler’s journey came full circle this month as she walked the grounds of her alma mater. The whispers of Villanova began when she was only 15 years old while she worked in a pharmacy owned and operated by Max Schwartz and his brother-in-law, Irwin Manheim, her mentors at the time. Schwartz and Manheim encouraged Bruzek-Kohler to obtain her college degree, but Schwartz went a step further and touted his own alma mater, Villanova University, as the place to fulfill that goal. Her family physician was also a Villanova graduate; Bruzek-Kohler remembers seeing his diploma on the wall and being aware that he was an Army Reserve physician.
These temporal memories may have seemed trivial at the time, but in an era when career options for women were limited primarily to teacher, secretary or motherhood, they had a profound impact on Bruzek-Kohler.
Her mother and father also encouraged education, but such endeavors required financial aid. “The other piece was that we [she and her two brothers] had to be smart enough to get a scholarship,” said Bruzek-Kohler, who is the only female in her family to graduate from college.
Bruzek-Kohler had a vision for something new and unique to what she had seen growing up. “I wanted to go away, I wanted to travel, I wanted to do something that would be completely and utterly different than anything anybody else did,” she said.
Then walking home from high school one day she saw a Navy recruiting poster with the slogan ‘It’s not just a job, it’s an adventure.’
“It had the face of a beautiful woman, a beautiful nurse’s cap with a gold and black stripe across it that said ‘Be a Navy Nurse,’” she recalled. “As soon as I saw that, I thought, ‘that’s what I am gonna be,’” said Bruzek-Kohler. It offered the travel and adventure she desired, and would ultimately, along with scholarships, pay for her education and pave a path for her out of the inner city.
“The Navy always offered something new, challenging and exciting,” said Bruzek-Kohler reflecting on her Navy career thus far. “Even the places I thought I didn’t want to go offered opportunities I never otherwise would have experienced. Each command offered growth in my career development; culminating in my current position.”
Retired Navy Nurse Corps Captain Phyllis Elsass, a mentor of Bruzek-Kohler’s, said, “It was obvious she was a very talented nurse. She had a lot of potential to contribute to the [Nurse] Corps. I gave her one of the hardest wards to challenge her. Chris [Bruzek-Kohler] was self-propelling; she had a lot of self-motivation.” Later in her career, Elsass, then Commanding Officer, Naval School of Health Sciences, Bethesda, Md., requested Bruzek-Kohler by name to serve on the staff at the school. Subsequently, Bruzek-Kohler became the first Nurse Corps officer assigned as director of Academic Support Department. Bruzek-Kohler credits her pursuit of higher education to the leadership and encouragement of Elsass. Bruzek-Kohler obtained a Master of Education from Providence College, and a Master of Arts and Doctor of Education from George Washington University.
“Being a nurse is about first being clinically competent. Being a Navy nurse is a lifelong commitment to patient care. You take on the role of leader early in your career. There is a commitment to accountability, ethics, change and risk- not what most think of when they decide to become a nurse,” said Bruzek-Kohler.
Bruzek-Kohler recently turned over the duties as the Director, Navy Nurse Corps, which she held from 2005 to 2009. During this time, Bruzek-Kohler was responsible for pioneering several initiatives for the Navy Nurse Corps.
Upon completion of their first tour in the Navy, Nurse Corps Officers are now allowed to apply for the full-time Duty Under Instruction (DUINS) program. This is a significant policy change as several recent retention studies have shown that higher education contributes to retention in the Navy. DUINS, which includes full salary and paid tuition, improved retention and has been cited by the Center for Naval Analysis (CNA) as the main reason nurses join and are retained in the Navy. Another educational initiative was the creation of the Federal Civilian Graduate Education Program, which is the first of its kind in DoD. This program gives DoD civilians the opportunity for upward mobility, increased education, knowledge and responsibility, while improving a clear career path with increased leadership opportunities, and the ability to enhance Navy Medicine.
“This is an important contribution to the Navy because federal civilian nurses add continuity and stability to Military Treatment Facilities as active duty nurses deploy” said Capt. Kathleen M. Pierce, Deputy Director, Nurse Corps, Bureau of Medicine and Surgery.
Under Bruzek-Kohler’s leadership, positions for nurses were established at key operational commands, such as the first Navy Nurse Corps officer assigned to serve on the Fleet Forces Command staff in 2007, directing policy for Navy Nurses supporting operational missions around the world. She also created four Psychiatric Mental Health nurse practitioner Operational Stress Control (OSCAR) billets with Marine Corps units in 2009 and assigned the first Navy Nurse Corps officer to serve on the Headquarters Marine Corps staff, which allows the Nurse Corps to advise the Marine Corps how to best utilize nurses assigned to and in direct care of Marines. “This is crucial since nurses are closer to the fight, caring for patients on the ground, in the air and at sea. Nurses are doing things they haven’t had to do before,” said Pierce. Bruzek-Kohler also extended support to the Army mission over her tenure by deploying more than 100 Navy Reserve Nurse Corps Officers to Landstuhl Army Regional Medical Center.
Bruzek-Kohler joined the Navy just after the Vietnam War, spending most of her career in a peacetime Navy. “Times are different now. I worry about them [Navy nurses] taking care of themselves as much as they take care of others. It’s a different time. I was single, footloose and it was all exciting. Now the demographics are different. Nurses have families; they go to war- we ask so much of them,” said Bruzek-Kohler. “War has crystallized what our [Navy nurses] role is. It has validated Nurses’ worth- they are experts and they are valued for their expertise. Navy nurses are essential members of the healthcare team. They deploy and return proud of whom and what they are in their own right.”
Bruzek-Kohler is the first Villanova nurse to hold the position of both the Naval Medical Inspector General and the 21st Director of the Navy Nurse Corps. She was awarded the St. Thomas of Villanova Medal “in recognition of her vision, leadership and positive influence in a complex world, her many accomplishments in the field of nursing and in the United States Navy, and her dedication to alma mater,” said Paul A. Tufano, Esq., president of the Villanova University Alumni Association and member of the Villanova University Board of Trustees.
Of the 32 student nurses that were commissioned with Bruzek-Kohler from her class of 1974 at Villanova, she is the only remaining nurse on Active Duty. “The adventure was always in front of me, just around the corner. You just have to go with the flow, take the jobs and learn from it,” she said. Bruzek-Kohler has served in the U.S. Navy for 37 years and currently holds the position of Commander, Navy Medicine West and Naval Medical Center San Diego.