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Rickhards’ clips brings home Lieutenant Colonel

Rickhards’ clips brings home Lieutenant Colonel

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Elizabeth Rickhards made Lieutenant Colonel Paula Abbott-Van Dyke do something she hadn’t done in thirty years – come home.{{more}}

Van Dyke, now resident in San Antonio, Texas, said in August 2009, she received several calls from relatives asking her to view a Vincy Homecoming promotional video which had been posted on the Internet.

“They told me ‘the video is ‘about you’. I took that to mean the collective ‘you’…. When I clicked on it nonchalantly… and realized that ‘you’ was directed at me, and they went through all the trouble to do this and invite me back home, I stopped everything and picked up the phone,” Van Dyke explained.

The video, put together by Rickhards, a student of the Girls’ High School (GHS), took the top prize in last Friday’s Vincy Homecoming Miss Heritage pageant hosted by the GHS. Each of the delegates in the show was required to make a video promoting Vincy Homecoming 2009.

Rickhard’s video included personal invitations from Paula’s relatives, her former Headmistress, pupils of her former schools: the Layou Government School and the GHS, and featured several tourism sites in St. Vincent and the Grenadines. “This is your island and you need to come back home…. Hello, Paula Van Dyke….Come back home and let’s celebrate….” Rickhards entreated.

“I was registered in a post-Master’s internship in Psychiatry… I put that on hold. In fact, I put everything on hold (to be able to make the trip),” Van Dyke disclosed.

The events prompting the return of the 46-year-old retired Air Force officer to the land of her birth, though dramatic, were nothing compared to those causing her departure 30 years ago. When La Soufriere erupted in April, 1979, 15-year-old Paula, along with three siblings, fled St. Vincent to join her mother who was already residing in the United States with six other Abbott children.

“We slept at the airport until we got a flight out,” she related. “Then we spent a week in Barbados. From there we went to Greenwich, Connecticut, where my family was already established.”

Paula spent her early childhood in the west coast village of Layou, one of 10 children born to Stanley and Jenny Abbott. She was the sixth child and attended the Layou Government School, then the St. Joseph’s Convent Kingstown primary school, from where she won a scholarship to the GHS.

Paula was in the fifth form preparing to write her O’levels when everything changed. The volcano erupted and her parents thought it prudent to remove the children from the threat. “My mother came down and got us,” she said.

“It took a lot of getting used to, the culture, the weather, but eventually I did,” the registered nurse said of her first few years in the United States.

She attended high school in Connecticut, and credits the good foundation she got at the GHS for the skip she got from the 10th to the 12th grade. In 1985, Paula graduated from the University of Connecticut with a Bachelor of Science degree in Nursing. After working one year as a civilian nurse, she joined the Air Force in 1986.

“You enter the Air Force automatically as an officer, once you have a four-year degree,” Van Dyke explained. “They have a lot of opportunities to move up based on rank.”

The young nurse entered the Air Force at the rank of Second Lieutenant. “From Second Lieutenant to Captain, you do typical nursing duties, taking care of patients…. As you move up in rank, you broaden your scope, they expect that of you. You have to dabble in a lot more things outside of nursing. You are expected to be a leader and a manager in your field,” Van Dyke explained.

She detailed to SEARCHLIGHT the different types of leadership training officers are exposed to at different ranks. “…When you become Lieutenant Colonel, you go to Air War College. So you learn about war strategies. While you are a nurse, you are also learning about actual defence of the country…. We learn about how we as a nation operate both during peace and war time.

“That’s what I think is the exciting part. A lot of nurses also join because it gives them the opportunity to fly all over the world as a flight nurse.”

During Operation Desert Storm (1990 ñ 1991) young Captain Van Dyke was stationed at Dover Air Force Base in Delaware. Dover was the base which received body bags from overseas and Van Dyke worked as part of a team providing psychological counseling to the military personnel who worked in the morgue.

“It was gruesome for them to see the burnt, charred bodies and young kids that actually died in the war. They were stressed out and had sleeping difficulties, so we went in and helped them.”

A much more exciting tour of duty was when she was assigned to the White House from 1993 to 1996 during the Clinton / Gore administration. She was part of a twelve person medical team comprising six doctors and six nurses.

Van Dyke explained that part of her responsibility was medical contingency planning. “If the President is to make a trip to a foreign country, a White House nurse will be part of the huge team which will go into the country fifteen days in advance. We survey the infrastructure, visit every site he plans to visit and figure out how the president will get in and out should there be a medical emergency….We also visit the hospital and make a decision whether it is capable of taking care of the President, if not, we devise a plan to get him out quickly.”

If not part of the advance team, her duties typically included accompanying the President while he travelled on Air Force One. “We do not leave his side,” she said.

When not travelling, the White House medical team provides routine medical services to White House senior staffers and plans annual physicals for the President, Vice President and their families, Van Dyke explained.

After leaving the White House in 1996, Van Dyke had various three-year assignments around the United States.

Since retiring from the military at the rank of Lieutenant Colonel in 2007, she has been coping well. “It was a relief to finally retire after 20 years and know that in three years I am not moving again. I can put down roots… and stay in Texas. I missed it, but I prefer the life that I am living now.”

The married mother of four girls ranging in age between 7 and twenty years, has, since retirement, been studying and working as an administrator at a Veteran’s Administration Hospital in San Antonio. In December 2008, she completed her Master of Science degree as a Nurse Practitioner in Gerontology and is now studying for her state boards.

She is impressed by what she has seen in St. Vincent, particularly the international airport under construction, and the senior citizens activity centres.

“The international airport is long overdue. I got to see the work that is going on. I also got to see the nursing home (at Black Point). If I retire, I’d want to live there. It is absolutely gorgeous and I am really excited to see that St. Vincent is focusing on the elderly and doing stuff like that for them. The setting is perfect. Probably the most peaceful setting I have seen in an elderly retirement home.”

Paula also plans to bring her children back for a visit soon. “I know for a fact, God’s willing, once that airport is built, I’ll be down here every year. My plans are to bring my kids back once they are out for the summer in June. It will be their first visit here and I will introduce them to the people and the culture.”

See you next year, Paula!

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