BAGRAM AIRFIELD, Afghanistan -- After escaping the violence of the Iran-Iraq War, a young girl and her family reached a refugee camp in Turkey.
One of the things she still remembers vividly from this journey are the large red crosses emblazoned on the aid tents in the camp. After all, it was here that 1st Lt. Wajeeha Omar first encountered an American nurse who worked in the immunizations area -- an encounter that would later influence the course of her own life. "Back then they wore the white dress and a pretty white hat," Omar said. After living in the camp without access to regular showers, Omar felt rather embarrassed when she got to the front of the immunization line, where the wait could last for hours, when the nurse confidently reached out her hand. "It didn't bother her," Omar said. "I could tell she was telling me not to be afraid. She reassured me and ... was very comforting. It was at that moment I wanted to be a nurse."
Today, Omar is one of 120 American nurses and medical technicians at Craig Joint Theater Hospital here, providing health care to sick an injured servicemembers. Omar admitted that at the time the dream of becoming a nurse seemed remote in a culture that prized family and child-rearing above all. "Living in the camp it was a very big dream, something I didn't think would be possible," she said. "I didn't think I would end up in America or a country where I would even go to school." Upon arriving in the United States in 1992, 13-year-old Omar was immediately placed in the ninth grade and said she struggled in the new environment. "It was a very frightening experience," she said. As time went by though, Omar found herself discovering the world was more full of opportunities than she'd once thought. "Living in northern Iraq it seemed very small; I didn't know the world was as big as it was," she said. Realizing that she could become a nurse if she wanted to, Omar decided to go to nursing school while also working full-time and raising a young daughter as a single mother. Eventually, she was drawn toward the military to help her continue her education. From the time she entered the service, Omar was keen to deploy, wanting to provide the type of service she had benefited from long ago in that refugee camp.
"I wanted to do the same thing that others had done for us," she said. "I wanted to give back to those who had given so much to ensure our care and freedom." Omar has now been in the Air Force more than two years. Her current deployment to Bagram Airfield is her first, and while her work is primarily processing the paperwork that moves service members in and out of the hospital, she realizes the importance of her role. "It's a big part of the mission," she said. "I don't provide their care directly, but I do send them home." While Omar still hopes to do more humanitarian work in the future, today she's appreciative of the exposure the Air Force is giving her to various aspects of nursing work. "There's a huge variety, you never get bored," she said. "I'm learning things here that I never heard of back home." Omar's leadership considers her a vital part of the Craig Joint Theater Hospital team. "(Omar) is one of the best, hardest-working officers I've had the pleasure of working with in my 22-year career," said Lt. Col. Doug Houston, the 455th Contingency Aeromedical Staging Facility flight commander. "She's very meticulous with details and is not afraid to hold people to standards. She has a bright future ahead of her." Omar said people often ask her how she went from a refugee to a successful officer in the Air Force, thinking that she's either extremely smart or just had things handed to her. She said she has had to study and work hard to reach this point. "Almost everything I have tried, I have failed the first time," she said, "Part of me getting this far was not giving up ... and I continue not to give up."