Leah Schafer wanted to be a nurse when she was a teen-ager. Little did she know that her nursing career would carry her all over the world with the United States Air Force while raising a family. Now 71, the well-decorated retired Air Force colonel is a Great Bridge resident who enjoys traveling, spending time with family and staying busy within the Chesapeake community through her church. Although she’s been retired for 20 years, she speaks of her military service and multitude of assignments with a familiar smile.
It all began in her hometown of neighboring Portsmouth. The Churchland High School graduate completed the Portsmouth General Hospital School of Nursing diploma program in 1964. She passed her board exams and became a registered nurse. She took a job at Portsmouth General Hospital, where was little turnover in personnel, resulting in few opportunities for advancement.
“I was looking for something to do,” said Schafer. “I wanted to broaden my experience clinically and travel.” She also wanted to further her education and meet new people, so she joined the Air Force. She had decided to try it for the two-year minimum, but wound up instead staying for 28 years.
“I wanted to serve my country,” she explained. “I’ve always been dedicated to serving my country. I’m a patriotic person.”
Her Air Force career began with orientation training at Gunter Air Force Base in Alabama in June of 1965. It was there that she learned many things, including how to be an officer. Her next stop was Vance AFB in Enid, Okla. She received flight nurse training, but never actually flew. They needed her skills on the ground. She went to Cam Ranh Bay in Vietnam from 1967 to 1968 with the 12th USAF Hospital Surgical Unit. Most of her patients were 18- and 19-year-old Marines with shrapnel, gunshot wounds and grenade injuries that stemmed from the Tet Offensive.
Working in 12-hour shifts, she packed and irrigated their wounds. The goal was to rehabilitate those who were able, preparing them to go back to the front within 60 to 90 days. It was a busy time.
“Taking care of the wounded, that’s what we were there for,” said Schafer. “Many of them were very fearful of going back to the field when they were recovered. I’m glad I got to provide them nursing care.”
The tiny quarters that she shared with a roommate and few amenities nearby gave her a better appreciation for the beautiful beaches there. One highlight for their spare time was going to the Tape Center and recording music to play on their Sony tape recorders. While on rest and relaxation (R&R) leave, she did some traveling, spending one week in Hong Kong, another in Tokyo.
After her tour of duty in Vietnam, she spent two years at Beale AFB in California, working in obstetrics and pediatrics before transferring to the multi-service unit for medical, surgical, orthopedic and pediatric patients.
Her next stop was Charlotte, NC. As a recruiter for Air Force Nurse Corps, she talked to candidates interested in joining. Schafer appeared on TV and visited nursing schools in North and South Carolina, as well as Eastern Tennessee. It was during this time that she met her future husband of 14 years.
Schafer then moved to Carswell AFB in Texas, where she worked in post-surgical and emergency care. The following assignment involved duties in post-surgical and coronary care at Wiesbaden Air Base in West Germany. It was 1975. She was married by then, and one of her daughters was born there. Schafer traveled extensively throughout Europe, visiting many countries, including Italy, France, Denmark, Switzerland, England and Belgium.
The greatest challenges in her career came next, at the 1,000-bed Wilford Hall Medical Center at Lackland AFB in San Antonio, Texas. She worked as a charge nurse in several different units, moving forward into positions of greater responsibility.
“While it was a difficult assignment, it was probably the most rewarding,” said Schafer.
After earning a bachelor’s degree in nursing at Incarnate Word College in San Antonio, Texas, Schafer assumed a chief nurse position at Vandenburg AFB in California. She was promoted from lieutenant colonel to colonel in her two-year stay, then returned to Carswell. During the next five years, she earned her master’s degree in nursing and eventually became Command Nurse at the USAF Logistics Command.
Schafer retired in September of 1993 and moved to Ohio for a while before moving back to Hampton Roads and settling down in Chesapeake. Her two daughters are now grown and have families of their own. Sara Cooley lives in Chesapeake, and Lori Schafer Carver lives in Florida.
Schafer enjoys spending time with her four grandchildren when possible and working as the director of Women on Mission at Great Bridge Baptist Church. Still interested in ministering to others, she has participated in Meals-on-Wheels and visits patients who are in assisted living facilities or have Alzheimer’s disease.
Col. Leah Schafer, The Citizen of Chesapeake salutes you and thanks you for your service to our nation.