FREEPORT — Dozens of former Air Force nurses descended on the area this week for the Society of Air Force Nurses regional convention.

Mostly white-haired and long into retirement, the nurses gathered to remember their careers and lend each other support.

They are spending the week seeing the sights and reminiscing.

Collectively they nursed the wounded in three wars. Some of them worked in traditional military hospitals while others worked on medical evacuation planes.

On Monday, the group shopped and lunched in Freeport.

Many of them sported hearing aids because of hearing losses from the noise of the airplanes, but that didn’t appear to interfere with their socializing.

Retired Maj. Mary “Dottie” McGuirk, 81, of Westbrook organized the conference.

A Maine native, McGuirk graduated from nurses’ training at Mercy Hospital in Portland and cared for veterans at the Veterans Administration Hospital in Augusta.

She then spent three tours of duty in Southeast Asia during the Vietnam War, some of the time on evacuation planes and the rest at Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines, where the wounded were brought to be stabilized before they were transported to other facilities.

“I used to start out with 40 units of blood behind my desk and that would run out. We took off a lot of limbs and cleaned a lot of wounds,” said McGuirk, who lost her two husbands, both Air Force pilots, in airplane accidents.

McGuirk remembered her assignment in the United Kingdom just as the Beatles were emerging.

She was posted outside of London, where she became good friends with fellow nurses Cathy Varble and Esther La-Croix, both of Biloxi, Miss.

They have stayed in touch ever since.

“We were young and full of it,” said McGuirk.

On Monday they remembered the times they spent at the coveted Air Force officers club in London, where their presence was somewhat resented by their nonmedical counterparts.

“It was a super time. It was where we met our husbands,” said Varble.

There are about 4,000 nurses currently serving with the Air Force, said Pat Brennan of Niceville, Fla., the society president.

The nurses work with members of the Air Force and their families and serve in forward support areas, on humanitarian relief missions.

Their specialties include flight nursing, jungle nursing, aerospace nursing and extended-care nursing for prisoners of war and victims of terrorism.

The society boasts 2,000 members and gets together annually. Members said serving as a nurse in the Air Force requires special skills.

“You take everything you learned on the ground and apply it at 35,000 feet up, where the air pressure changes the medical aspect of the patient,” said Donna Cunningham of Littleton, N.H.

Cunningham was on hand to close the last military base in Vietnam when the United States withdrew its ground forces in 1973.

She said the base hospital was shut down, sparkling clean and fully equipped with the latest medical technology.

“All the beds were made up perfectly and an hour later, everything was gone, the pipes, the equipment all taken,” said Cunningham.

The women have other visits planned – to Kennebunkport, Scarborough and York. At least one lobster bake is on the agenda.

The visit will culminate with a banquet Wednesday at the Wyndham Hotel in South Portland with Maine’s Air National Guard Honor Guard and speaker Maj. Sheryl Kempton of New Sharon.

She is a member of the Maine Army National Guard who at 61 was deployed to the war in Iraq.


Staff Writer Beth Quimby can be contacted at 791-6363 or at: [email protected]