UCHealth employees: saluting the veterans among us

The skills and experiences our employees bring from their military service strengthen UCHealth and our patients.
Nov. 6, 2017

Jim Strife's medals for his service.
Jim Strife earned medals for his service around the world before he and his wife became heroes at home too. They rescued two foster children ten years ago and finalized their full adoption earlier this year. Photo courtesy of Jim Strife.

It was 2 a.m. on the first night of the invasion of Iraq in 2003.

James Strife was a major in the military police and his job that night was to oversee the operations center and coordinate troop movement around the former Iraqi air base they had captured earlier in the day.

A patrol of Marines thought they had spotted enemy forces in a burned out building and wanted permission to fire on the position with artillery.

“My board showed it was an unknown force and there was no way to determine at that time that is was friendly or enemy forces. I said ‘no.’”

The conversation became heated and Strife had to wake his general, who backed him up.

“You will not fire on this position,” the general said.

The next morning, infantrymen confirmed that Strife had been right. He had saved the lives of our own service members.

That’s how Strife got his first Bronze Star Medal. He went on to earn another Bronze Star Medal for his service in Kandahar, Afghanistan, along with many other military awards. He retired as a colonel from the military in 2014 after 32 years of service.

Strife is now the System Director of Security for UCHealth.

His wife, L.J. also served 21 years in the service and together they had three children when they decided to become foster parents.

Ten years ago, just before Christmas, the Strifes completed their training and received their licenses to be foster parents. That night, they received a call that three young boys had been removed from their parents. Jim, L.J. and the kids loaded into their minivan at midnight and found the boys, ages 4, 2 and 1 in bad shape.

“They had severely decayed teeth because they’d been given Coca-Cola instead of milk. They were malnourished and had many other physical and psychological issues,” Strife said.

Jim and L.J. Strife both served in the military. After having three children, they became foster parents. This year, the Strifes celebrated the final adoption of their two youngest.
Jim and L.J. Strife both served in the military. After having three children, they became foster parents. This year, the Strifes celebrated the final adoption of their two youngest. Photo courtesy of Jim Strife.

The oldest boy ended up going back with a family member, but the younger two have been part of the family ever since.

After fighting for permanent custody for more than 10 years, the Strifes, earlier this year, finalized the full adoption of David, 13, and Sergio, 12.

“They’re wonderful. They’re thriving,” Strife said.

All five children still live at home. They are 22, 21, 17, 13 and 12.

Strife said it’s been an honor to serve both at home and around the world.

“My philosophy is that everyone should serve their country and their community. If you don’t, I think you’re missing an opportunity to make the world a better place.”

Staff Sgt. Kyle Sanchez, left, with an Afghan solider who he helped train for the Afghan Air Force airlift mission that provided relief operations to the country.
Staff Sgt. Kyle Sanchez, left, with an Afghan solider who he helped train for the Afghan Air Force airlift mission that provided relief operations to the country.

The desire to serve others has always been strong with Staff Sgt. Kyle Sanchez.

Sanchez spent six years on active duty with the United States Air Force at Dyess Air Force Base in Texas and Little Rock Air Force Base in Arkansas, during which time he was deployed to Afghanistan as air advisor, training Afghan counterparts on how to run a safe and effective maintenance program for their airlift mission.

“Obviously, being in the military fulfilled my desire to serve and be a part of something greater than myself, and I planned on making it a career,” Sanchez said. “But I had a change of heart after the floods that affected northern Colorado in 2013.”

For several days starting Sept. 9, 2013, rain deluged the Front Range, dropping record amounts that caused roads and almost entire communities to be washed away by floodwaters.

“I felt completely helpless being so far away from home, where my mission would not allow me to come back and assist in relief efforts,” he said. “I saw first responders working tirelessly to help members of our community and realized that I wanted to be a part of a team like the one here at UCHealth EMS (emergency medical services), giving me a new opportunity to serve others and make a difference in my hometown.”

Sanchez joined UCHealth EMS in Fort Collins in June 2016, but he continues to serve his country as well, as a firefighter assigned to the 153rd Civil Engineering Squadron with the Wyoming Air National Guard. In February 2017, he was called to active status by the guard — taking short-term leave from UCHealth — and has been assigned to the Cheyenne Regional Airport, where he’s getting additional training as a firefighter in preparation for possible future deployments.

“I’m providing fire protection to the C-130 cargo planes we have assigned here as well as civilian aircraft that use the airport,” Sanchez said. “We respond to any in-flight emergencies, mutual aid with the city of Cheyenne or any medical calls on base.

“As much as I’ve enjoyed what I have been doing the past year, I look forward to getting back on the ambulance and continuing my career at UCHealth.”

Sanchez is expected to return to UCHealth full time this December.

Terry Knapp

As a civil engineer in the U.S. Navy, Terry Knapp traveled all over the world building bridges – literally and figuratively – to help communities grow stronger.

“I drilled water wells in Africa and built hospitals and schools in Third World countries, and some of those communities never had any of those things,’’ said Knapp, now the leader of security services at UCHealth Memorial Hospital in Colorado Springs.

Knapp spent 30 years in the Navy and his last tour with the Navy was as the Commander of the Naval Construction Battalion Maintenance Unit, leading 750 Navy engineers who worked along the West Coast and Hawaii.

Knapp stood up combat hospitals for American troops in Kuwait, where in 2003 he served as the “camp czar,’’ providing safety, food, shelter and medical services for 10,000 troops before they pushed into Iraq.

Knapp began his Navy career in 1985 as an enlisted Seabee before he became a Navy officer and spent time as a sheriff’s sergeant in southern Mississippi.

Knapp said that after retiring from the Navy, he wanted to continue to serve people, and working at Memorial since 2014 has allowed him to fulfill that desire.

“I go home every day feeling like we helped people and that we’ve done something to build our community and keep people safe,’’ Knapp said. “This is different than what I did in the Navy but also very much the same. It’s hands on and personal as well as being emotionally fulfilling by helping to save lives every day.

“I believe in being receptive to others, and I have a rule: If you’re within six feet of somebody, you should say ‘hello,’ and say hello with a smile on your face,’’ Knapp said.

Knapp is married to his high school sweetheart, Carla, and the couple has three grown children and a 10-year-old grandson.

Loretta Kuhlman served five years serving in the United States Air Force.
Loretta Kuhlman served five years serving in the United States Air Force.

In the 1970s, Loretta Kuhlman spent five years serving in the United States Air Force, attaining the rank of Captain. She was one of the first six women in the nation to receive a commission through a university Air Force ROTC program, versus attending Officer Training School. Kuhlman served as WAF Squadron Commander and as an Administrative Officer for the Security Police Squadron, Organizational Maintenance Squadron, Base Administration and Wing Administration. She was awarded an Air Force Commendation Medal for her service.

Kuhlman said her years of service prepared her for her current work at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center by teaching her professionalism, responsibility, accountability, attention to detail, forward thinking and self-confidence.

Dr. Nancy Major served in the Army after medical school. She's now a radiologist for UCHealth
Dr. Nancy Major served in the Army after medical school. She’s now a radiologist for UCHealth.

Dr. Nancy Major once got to give orders to a general, a very famous general: Norman Schwarzkopf, who led the coalition forces in the Gulf War.

Schwarzkopf was uncomfortable having an MRI. So Major held his hand and told him not to move.

“Apparently, I said it in a stern voice. So he made a joke about how I yelled at a general,” Major said. “He was a lovely man.”

During medical school, Major was struggling to keep up with tuition payments at Tufts University. Then she discovered the Health Professions Scholarship Program. She joined the Army. Uncle Sam helped pay for her medical training and Major spent seven years serving military veterans.

“I had great assignments.”

She spent her residency at the University of California, San Francisco Medical Center.

“Veterans are very grateful for their care,” said Major, an orthopedic radiologist and visiting professor at University of Colorado School of Medicine, who works at both UCHealth University of Colorado Hospital and UCHealth Physical Therapy and Rehabilitation Clinic – Boulder.

One of the challenges she faced with her patient population was the large number of veterans who were dealing with addiction to cigarettes.

“I did a lot of interventional radiology and unfortunately a lot of smokers have diseases in the legs and hardening of the arteries,” she said. “Smoking is a very bad thing.”

Her most exciting moment tied to her military service came after she retired.

She was working at Duke University Medical Center and the Golden Knights Army Parachute Team was performing there. They wanted an employee to join them and thanks to Major’s Army service, she got picked.

“I wasn’t afraid at all. I had the biggest smile during the entire free fall,” she said. “It was the coolest thing to view earth from that high up. I loved floating. Then I wanted to land perfectly on the ‘X.’ I nailed it.” (Click below to see her jump.)

John Brockman is a maintenance technician at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center.
John Brockman is a maintenance technician at UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center.

When John Brockman joined the Army, he was stationed in Mannheim, Germany and worked with the 512th Signal Corp. as a radio repairman. It was in Germany where Brockman learned to ski – fitting since he now lives in Steamboat Springs with Mt. Werner in view from the windows of UCHealth Yampa Valley Medical Center. Brockman has been with YVMC for 23 years, serving in the dietary department, as a nurse aid and then as a driver for the injured skier shuttle. He went on to spend some time in Central Supply and today, works as a maintenance technician.

Brockman’s long tenure with YVMC stems from something he learned in the service.

“The Army taught me about dedication – to the organization you’re with and what you’re doing,” he said. “When I was wiring telephones and switchboards, I had to stick with it until they worked. That’s the same thing I try to do today.”

Carla Thorson has a knack for problem solving, and it’s a skill she credits to her 22 years as an officer in the United States Navy.

Carla Thorson

But there is another ability the advanced practice registered nurse honed during her military experience, which helps her daily in her role as a clinical nurse specialist for perioperative services in northern Colorado — and it is just as important to UCHealth’s mission.

“Working with wounded warriors is an honor, but you’re entrenched in human devastation,” Thorson said. “There was no distancing yourself from the emotion, and it taught me how to embrace that emotional part and use it to help me in how I care for patients — a holistic rather than only a problem-solving approach.

“I use that holistic approach both when I’m caring for family and patients, as well as for our staff,” she continued. “An operating room is about time, efficiency — perfection — but we need to realize we are still working with humans, and that’s when I tap into those (military) experiences.”

After finishing Florida State’s ROTC program, Thorson was commissioned into the Navy in 1992. She reported to Naval Medical Center Portsmouth on the medical surgical unit, then moved into the perioperative nursing program and learned several new roles in an operating room over the next year. She then made her first trip to Okinawa, Japan, as a charge nurse of general surgery for the 3rd Medical Battalion with the U.S. Marines.

After 9/11, she was stationed at National Naval Medical Center in Bethesda, Maryland, in charge of nurse interns who took care of wounded warriors coming back from Iraq and Afghanistan. The nurses she mentored would be training naval corpsmen.

“We were training them to be nurses — which is a lot in itself — but then we were also training them to be officers,” she said. “It would be the job of these nurses to make sure that corpsmen — what would be like our nursing assistants — were ready to be deployed as Marine medical staff, the ones working the front lines.”

After a few other assignments, Thorson returned to Bethesda as the chief of staff for the admiral, working with senior military leaders, and Congress and Senate members, to help with Haitian relief, expanded wounded warrior services, and facility construction for rehab services and brain injury treatment for military members.

She retired in the fall of 2011 and thought she’d never again find the type of strong family she had in the military.

“I didn’t think I’d find that in the civilian sector, but UCHealth is built on the foundations of teamwork, dedication, commitment and quality for our patients and staff,” she said. “So, my transition was very easy.”

Lt. Col. Richard Weichel, left, with his one of his brothers, while on active duty.
Lt. Col. Richard Weichel, left, with his one of his brothers, while on active duty.

Lt. Col. Richard Weichel entered into the military with a plan to be there only six years — but 32 years later, he continues to serve his country.

“I enjoyed the military and have been able to do the same work in the military as I do in civilian life,” he said.

Weichel is manager of Supply Chain for UCHealth Longs Peak Hospital in Longmont. But when he’s called upon, he’s also the commander of the United States Army Reserve’s 172nd Multifunctional Medical Battalion, overseeing 10 commands that includes medical logistics, ground ambulance, combat stress, preventive medicine, veterinary and blood support companies.

Weichel’s work has always been in the hospital setting, first as a lab technician then later as a Medicare inspector. But since 1994, he’s been a supply officer, handling the logistics and coordination of supplies for his battalion.

Because it’s a multifunctional battalion, Weichel is in charge of making sure that those under his command have everything they need to function as a medical unit, not just medical supplies. He also confirms their food is safe, their mental health needs are addressed and preventive medicine measures are in place.

“Part of the Army Medical Regiment includes veterinarians,” he said. “They serve the dual role of working on our military animals, but also all our military food sources are approved by our veterinary corps. So the farmers providing our fresh produce and meat are signed off by this group; the fresh milk sources also are approved by this group.”

Similarly, at UCHealth Weichel’s role is to make sure all the supplies are available for the hospital to run smoothly and efficiently.

“I enjoy the building readiness aspect of this job a lot,” he said about his new position with UCHealth. LPH has only been open since Aug. 31, 2017.

But he detailed a few differences. For one, a civilian hospital sees a wide variety of patients and must be prepared for anything, whereas a military hospital is mostly seeing trauma and acute patients.

“And the focus on the patient is very refreshing,” he said. “In the military, we focus on combat and then we have patients. Here is patient-focused first, and everyone is willing to make that happen — everyone is here to help you succeed.”

Dr. Michael McDermott
Dr. Michael McDermott served as part of a peacekeeping force in the Sinai Desert, where he ran a health clinic. When patients needed surgery, he accompanied them in an ambulance to either Egypt or Israel.

The local Bedouin nomads traveled mostly by camel, but fortunately, Dr. Michael McDermott could borrow an ambulance when he needed to transport patients through the Sinai Desert.

McDermott served as an Army doctor for 20 years and was deployed back in 1982 and 1983 to head a Sinai medical clinic when a multi-national force kept peace between Israel and Egypt following the historic Camp David Peace Accords.

The conditions were challenging to say the least. Temperatures in the desert could soar to well over 100 degrees. Wars had gripped the area for decades, so unexploded bombs pocked the desert. Communication was poor. Of course, the Internet didn’t exist yet. Even phone calls were tough. The second of McDermott’s four children was born in Denver while he served in the Sinai and McDermott didn’t know he was a new dad for a full week. And when McDermott and several soldiers got a strange rash, he had to take pictures, mail them to a colleague back home and wait weeks for guidance. It turned out to be treatable parasitic disease from sand fly bites.

McDermott is the Director of Diabetes and Endocrinology Practice at UCHealth’s University of Colorado Hospital and a professor of Endocrinology, Metabolism and Diabetes for the University of Colorado School of Medicine.

After joining the military following medical school in 1977, McDermott served his entire military career ‑- except his Sinai deployment ‑- at the Fitzsimons Army Medical Center, where he was Endocrinology Chief and the Endocrinology consultant to the Army Surgeon General.

McDermott even lived on base for a year in a home that still stands adjacent to what became the University of Colorado Hospital following the closure of Fitzsimons as an Army base back in the 1990s.

Unlike the top-notch facilities he enjoys today, the medical conditions in the Sinai were incredibly primitive.

“You had to rely a lot more on physical exam. We had a dental X-ray machine. You’d have to take four images and piece them together for a chest X-ray,” McDermott said. “If someone needed surgery, we’d take them to a hospital in Egypt or Israel. We alternated days.”

The hospitals in Israel were much better. In Egypt, patients were treated in rooms with no screens; camels were parked out front and feral cats roamed the halls.

On days off, McDermott loved exploring Jerusalem and he visited Bethlehem on Christmas Eve, although soldiers blocked him from entering the Church of the Nativity.

On Veterans Day, McDermott honors his dad, who earned a Silver Star, a Bronze Star and two Purple Hearts as an infantry officer in World War II.

“I have to be very humble to compare my service to his. He went to a war and was in danger of losing his life,” McDermott said.

Nonetheless, he’s proud he joined the military.

“Public service is very important. It’s how we keep our freedom.”