Published November 7, 2022
Alumnus finds nursing through military service, then uses clinical experience to provide care after the 2021 Kabul Airport bombing.
When Joseph Hansen (BS ‘21) graduated from high school, he wasn’t sure what career he wanted to pursue.
“I didn’t know what I wanted long-term, but I had family in the military and knew the field involved a lot of traveling,” Hansen says. “So, I chose to join the Air Force Reserves.”
What he didn’t know at the time was that his experience in the U.S. Air Force would soon inspire him to join the nursing profession – and later lead him to serve as an aeromedical evacuation technician during one of the largest civilian air evacuations in American history.
Hansen’s first assignment – and introduction to nursing – was in Germany in 2016.
“I worked hand-in-hand with flight nurses from the start,” he says. “In Germany, we transported over 110 wounded warriors. It was amazing seeing nurses do hands-on patient care, and I thought I could see myself doing this for a long time.”
Inspired, Hansen enrolled in prerequisite nursing courses at Niagara County Community College. In 2019, he transferred to UB School of Nursing, where he enrolled in the traditional baccalaureate in nursing program.
“I wanted a great clinical experience and knew that UB School of Nursing was a prestigious school,” he says. “Plus, some of my unit colleagues graduated from there.
“It was the best decision I ever made,” he adds. “The program was perfectly paced and I never felt overwhelmed. When junior airmen ask me about nursing school today, I always recommend UB.”
Hansen graduated from UB SON in 2021 – but he had to miss his commencement ceremony for training for his second deployment.
“I had to travel to California to complete a special training for transferring COVID-19 patients,” he says. “I returned home for two weeks and then went straight to Kuwait for my second deployment.”
In Kuwait, his mission was to pick up soldiers and civilians who had experienced physical injuries or were experiencing psychiatric problems and transport them to the base for care.
Three months into his deployment in August 2021, a suicide bombing occurred at Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan.
“I was on standby with a team of three med techs and two nurses who were alerted that we had to go to the airport,” he says. “Typically, you are given all data and information for an assignment. But this was different than what we trained for. We weren’t sure how many patients needed transportation or who we would be transporting. We just knew we had to go right there, right now.”
Multiple air evacuation teams were tasked to go to the airport, and Hansen’s unit was paired with a Critical Care Air Transport Team comprised of a doctor, nurse and respiratory technician.
“When we arrived, some of the patients we were transporting were not yet stable for flight,” he says. “A nurse and I went off the aircraft, and we saw this incredible makeshift hospital that people had built to care for those who had been injured.
“People were getting ready to board with nothing more [than] what they had with them at the time, knowing they wouldn’t come back,” he adds. “Looking back, it was a lot to process.”
Once boarded, Hansen’s team transported and cared for a group of patients, including refugee families and many young children. The flight took four hours.
“It was a long, stressful flight,” he says. “These patients had suffered blast injuries and some had just undergone field surgery to remove shrapnel. I’m not a nurse in the Air Force, but my nursing degree and clinical experience helped me provide better care to patients that day.
“I’ll never forget the moment when we landed at our final destination,” he adds. "Seeing the smiles on the patients’ and kids’ faces as the aircraft doors opened, once they knew they were away from danger and tragedy, was so gratifying. Seeing the direct impact on their lives reminded me why I chose this job and why I continue to do it.”
While deployed to Kuwait, Hansen transported over 60 wounded warriors and refugees.
Hansen took his NCLEX-RN exam the first week he returned to the U.S. and was hired at the Buffalo VA Medical Center as a medical-surgical nurse shortly after.
“I actually worked at the VA as a student nurse tech the summer going into my senior year of nursing school,” Hansen explains. “The on-the-job training I received there was phenomenal, and it had an even greater impact on my clinical experience.”
Hansen cites his UB education as his source of confidence for his first nursing role.
“A lot of nurses are impressed by UB students and trusted us to do a lot during clinicals,” he says. “I volunteered for as much as I could. By the time I graduated, I didn’t feel stressed to leave – I felt confident.”
In addition, Hansen continues his nearly 10 years of service with the Air Force.
“My goal is to commission to be a flight nurse as an officer,” he says. “That requires one year of experience as a nurse, which I am working towards now.
“I’ve done a lot of patient education in my role because patients trust nurses to advocate for them,” he says. “There are so many opportunities for preventative care for all patients, veterans included, and I want to be a part of that change.”