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Serving Beyond The Lines

A portrait of Army Specialist Kelli Hewlett
Leah Singer
A portrait of Army Specialist Kelli Hewlett

Army Specialist Kelli Hewlett serves on the frontlines of Walter Reed Army Medical Hospital, helping soldiers return home

Serving Beyond The Lines
Serving Beyond The Lines

JUSTIN HUDNALL, HOST: From KPBS and So Say We All in San Diego, welcome to Incoming, the show that brings you stories from the lives of American veterans told in their own words, directly from their own mouths. I’m Justin Hudnall. Our entire first season is dedicated to one theme in particular, because there is an unwritten law in public radio that says you can’t have a storytelling show without a theme, and that theme is homecoming. So, with that, we’re going to start off our show with a story from a former US Army nurse, who never left the states during her enlistment and instead had the war come to her. KELLI HEWLETT: Hello! JUSTIN HUDNALL, HOST: Allow me to introduce you to Ms. Kelly Hewlett. KELLI: One...Two JUSTIN HUDNALL, HOST: Kelli is 32 years old now, and now is 2015. She’s currently enrolled in nursing school at SDSU. KELLI: My professors always say at the beginning of the semester, “So, Kelly, if I ever say something that you’ve seen or experienced, can you raise your hand so you could tell the class about it?” JUSTIN HUDNALL, HOST: For the sake of full disclosure, she and I both went to Patrick Henry High School together. Go Patriots! KELLI: (Laughs) No! How funny! It’s a tiny world, and time flies. JUSTIN HUDNALL, HOST: I mention that because-- KELLI: Um, I actually went to the military right out of high school. Hadn’t even- I just had my 18th birthday. I didn’t know what I was going to do. My parents were like I know what you’re going to do. So I went into the army. JUSTIN HUDNALL, HOST: --she was stationed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center-- KELLI: It’s really tiny. It’s actually maybe-3 blocks? JUSTIN HUDNALL, HOST: -- right before September 11th. but I’ll let her tell you the rest. KELLI: Hi, my name is Kelli Hewlett. My story is called Beyond The Lines. Alright, I’m going to just jump into it. (prior recording) Young and without much direction in my life, my parents pushed me to join the army. They couldn’t afford higher education for me and my younger sister, and this was the only thing they could think of to make sure that we were educated. My mother was a US Army sergeant. She’d come to learn of a field in the military that gave back: a degree that translated to the civilian world when most did not. So I found myself in a large room with a dozen of others, my right hand was raised as I was silently sobbing to myself as I was being sworn in. After being stationed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center right in the heart of D.C., one thing was for sure: I was going to do the rest of my 2 years and go back home to San Diego, back where the sun shines and the cold does not exist. From what I hear, I had a primo duty station at Walter Reed. My mom was stationed in Korea when I was a kid. It seemed like she was gone forever. I just wanted to know I could always just come back home, when most could not. I was a nurse, working on a medical surgical unit, ward 68, that dealt with anything from ears, nose and throat to the gut. Every so often I would get “lucky” and get a young soldier who would come in and have to stay overnight for an appendectomy, which was actually refreshing. We could talk about movies that were filmed in color, we had music from this decade. Most of my patients the average was usually around 60 and above. On September 11th, it all changed. I walked into an elderly man’s room with his Metamucil in tow; his television was on and his mouth agape. The towers fell. We went to war. Not too much longer after that our troops started to come home, but not in the fashion that the recruiters like to showcase. No. There were no GI mommy and daddy showing up in junior’s classroom, no hunky Marine showing up early and unannounced at a spouse's job, no. Tattered, scathed, broken both mentally and physically, that’s what we saw. The unit I worked on transformed. The average age of my patients dropped to the early twenties. Men and women my age. JUSTIN HUDNALL, HOST: Do you remember your first patient in the war? KELLI: My first patient in the war- The first I do remember was a young- he was so young. He was a young guy and he had a right leg amputation and um both of his arms were burned. I think one of his arms was amputated. You have to be innovative with that because (inaudible) ok so we give him his call light, he can hit it with what, you know? Or how is he going to be able to say he needs help if he doesn't’ have family here yet. You usually don’t think you have to take care of a 19 year old that much but I mean, you do. I mean, they are like so intensive and we were just the med surg kind of like you stay overnight and go home. Now we’re running out of capacity where people are like tubes everywhere and we deal with it every once in a while but that’s everybody. And you’re seeing surgeries you’ve never seen before, skin grafts you’ve never seen before. It just started picking up and it never stopped. (prior recording) There were these nights where we’d do this assignment, this detail and it consisted of two nurses from each unit in the hospital. And we’d make our way downstairs to the third floor to this makeshift triage area, and then a bus would pull up full of soldiers. Some could get off under their own will, but the others had to be carried off of the litters and put onto gurneys, their bandages last changed long ago. We would see if they were stable, then figure out where to put them based on injury type and level of care needed. Other nights a medevac would arrive on the helipad atop the hospital. That usually spelled a serious situation. I met one of those helicopters once. The patient died in the process of actually getting to the states, twice. They needed him to have a new military ID, since he was patrolling without one at the time of injury. His dog tags just weren’t enough. They took a picture of him in-flight. When they snapped it, he was soulless. The very fact that he ended up living was beyond me. The hospital’s old rooms, once used for storage, were converted back into rooms that could bear patients. Soldiers were greeted with smiles and stifled tears, “Welcome to Walter Reed.” After some time it became a well-oiled machine. Telephone cards, cash aid on debit cards. Family would arrive soon thereafter. There was joy and pain all at once. A father met his twin girls, only a few months old, for the very first time there. A 19 year old hugged his parents who were just happy to have their baby back. One young lady was able to reconnect, to her surprise, with her bomb dog. Considering her own injuries, she could only imagine that he had died. He jumped onto her bed and she wept for joy, lips trembling, tears streaming. And I was happy for myself too, to finally getting to see tears of relief. Some significant others were just as distant as their returning counterparts. I changed IVs while they fidgeted, reluctant to hold a stump where a hand once held a wedding band, slow to talk about the future. Be it a lost limb, a disfigured face, an affixed bag to a stomach that will forever collect stool, the adjustment is the worst. We did our duty. We fixed their bodies, but we neglected their minds. JUSTIN HUDNALL, HOST: What was one of those experiences that was really affecting for you that you were kind of nervous about sharing? KELLI: I feel that… like the....not like a moral injustice but it’s just the part of the cookie cutter notion of it. Why is everyone on the exact same med? Like everyone is on Seroquel and everyone is on this. So, it kind of got to me like, are we doing anything? We became so inundated with paperwork because there were soldiers that would get kind of lost in the shuffle and wouldn’t come back for follow ups or something like that. The forgotten soldiers you know and that’s always like that story. It’s sad because I was there witnessing some of it. Just didn’t kind of settle with you. These kids were so young and just so vulnerable. So yeah, that part was just hard for me, to be able to say specifically that did we do them justice? Was it right, you know? Um, how we did it? Or was that all we had that we could do, you know? (prior recording) I was shocked by the amount of patients who actually wanted to go back to war. They weren’t done yet. Their brothers were still over there and they needed to go back. There were others that resented their time there. I had a patient of mine who exclaimed in his salty manner, "We trained those mother f---ers, and now they’re shooting us up with our own s--t too!" It was years of this. I was drained and exhausted from not knowing how to deal with their baggage, coupled with my own emotions. But I shouldn’t complain, how could I? So I stuck to the script. JUSTIN HUDNALL, HOST: What’s the impact of taking care of that much intensive trauma on the nursing staff and on you? KELLI: It’s exhausting because not only is your- your workload increase, but what you’re doing mentally is draining. Sometimes it’s hard for you to even do your job because they don’t want to deal with you or they don’t want you to take their vital signs. They don’t care about anything and they just want their morphine and they want you to get the heck out of their room. JUSTIN HUDNALL, HOST: Weren’t you telling me the story once- and I’m going to get the details wrong but didn’t you say something about seeing a patient at Applebee’s or the bar? KELLI: Oh yes! Because Ruby Tuesday is like right down the street. So we all like ordered food or whatever for dinner and I go out there and one of my patients is at the bar. I’m just like oh this cannot be good. Because, the thing is he’s on a day pass so he has to come back. When he comes in, he’s going to ask for, of course, your percocet and your sleeping pills and I’m like but he had a beer. Like I saw him have a beer, so I have to say something to whoever his nurse is and be like listen, I saw him at Applebee’s. He was drinking, you know? We have to take extra precaution now but the thing is, if we don’t see that. If we don’t know that, how are we to know and can we be liable? You know all these things, and like who knows, because it’s Georgia Avenue and there’s a lot of crazy things in DC on Georgia Avenue. They could pick up anything there. So that’s another concern I have. Because they do like to party, they do know they’re in DC. But I am happy when they do tell me then I can be like ok this is the deal, you know. Because if you give them - at least give them the information, just so that they know because sometimes they probably just don’t. So you have to look at it that way. (prior recording) My favorite perk, I do have to admit, was the huge celebrity turnout. I’ve hugged Stevie Nicks. I shook the hand of Mick Foley. I almost spilled pee on Justin Timberlake. Jon Voight had his own Camera guy and took photos with each soldier room by room. Tyra Banks and her long-legged crew were pretty popular with the guys, too. It was really good to see uplifted spirits, even if it was just temporary. It was almost standard for the soldiers admitted in the hospital to be on some sort of antidepressant or mood stabilizer, bolster that with a sleeping aid, done in cookie cutter fashion. Everyone pretty much got the same thing. Granted, some changes were made if it didn’t seem to help. There were brief meetings with the psych doctor. The ones that displayed serious symptoms or who reached out were seen more. I don’t remember many follow-ups though, not for the masses. Some soldiers came to Walter Reed and they never left. Their only escape would be the eventual day pass. They would soon return for pain and sleeping pills when their short supply ran out. A few even got a three-day pass. I naturally assumed that if you can leave the hospital grounds and don’t need to return for three days, well, you don’t need to stay in the hospital anymore, but then I wondered if they wanted to leave. Maybe there was nothing left for them without the military. They were used to the structure, they were used to the order. They were use to those walls. They were screaming for help, but all we gave them were pills. JUSTIN HUDNALL, HOST: Do you feel like you were able to watch the pharmaceutical addictions (inaudible)? KELLI: Oh yeah. I mean it was drastic because one thing everyone was on was dilaudid pump, pca pump that self-administered pump. So you can give yourself a dose every 7 minutes or what have you. It was like a steady rate but they would be like ok you know what this is going well. We’re going to take away your pca. You know, and but the thing is, they’ve been on it for months. They try to titrate you off, then they’d take it away and everything hurts and they need something and they need it bad so they put them on percocet.Then they’re on percocet for very, very long time. And they we try to wean them off, you know, usually, but as soon as they leave, they’re coming back through the emergency room with excruciating pain. They need percocet, they need something, you know. Mostly I’m sure that it’s true, I think that people do feel pain but that I also think there is an addiction level there, but I don’t know if we discerned whether we took out the confounding variables, to find out which was really true but pain is what they say it is so we’re going to treat it as such. (prior recording) The intake rate slowed down eventually, a few years into the war. Still, they just kept coming, and the cycle remained the same. I felt guilty sometimes that I was stateside. It’s like I got off easy because I wasn’t over there. I did have this one older soldier I had taken care of. He was a platoon sergeant, he was a squad leader. He had valor. He would give me tidbits of life advice and I would change his wounds. He listened as I told him how I felt one night, and when I was finished, he told me that I was on the front lines. That his soldiers needed me here to take care of them when they came back. He’ll never know how badly I needed his permission to believe it myself. Thank you. JUSTIN HUDNALL, HOST: Give it up for Kelli Hewlett. That is our show. Incoming is produced by myself, Justin Hudnall. Original music by Chris Warren, Ariana Warren, and Kris Apple. Our theme music is by Tim Koch, aka 10:32 courtesy of Ghostly International. Kelly’s live performance was recorded along with much needed technical assistance by the wonderful Kurt Kohnen. Lea Singer is our Web Editor, Jim Tinsky does Web Development and special thanks to Grand Poobah and Program Director at KPBS John Decker, whose bearded benevolence is the reason we have this opportunity. If you have a story or you know someone who does, please go to SoSay WeAllonline.com and check out our many other programs in the San Diego area. Thanks so much for listening. We’ll talk again soon.

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JUSTIN HUDNALL, HOST:

From KPBS and So Say We All in San Diego, welcome to Incoming, the show that brings you stories from the lives of American veterans told in their own words, directly from their own mouths. I’m Justin Hudnall. Our entire first season is dedicated to one theme in particular, because there is an unwritten law in public radio that says you can’t have a storytelling show without a theme, and that theme is homecoming. So, with that, we’re going to start off our show with a story from a former US Army nurse, who never left the states during her enlistment and instead had the war come to her.

KELLI HEWLETT: Hello!

JUSTIN HUDNALL, HOST:

Allow me to introduce you to Ms. Kelly Hewlett.

KELLI: One...Two

JUSTIN HUDNALL, HOST:

Kelli is 32 years old now, and now is 2015. She’s currently enrolled in nursing school at SDSU.

KELLI: My professors always say at the beginning of the semester, “So, Kelly, if I ever say something that you’ve seen or experienced, can you raise your hand so you could tell the class about it?”

JUSTIN HUDNALL, HOST:

For the sake of full disclosure, she and I both went to Patrick Henry High School together. Go Patriots!

KELLI: (Laughs) No! How funny! It’s a tiny world, and time flies.

JUSTIN HUDNALL, HOST:

I mention that because--

KELLI: Um, I actually went to the military right out of high school. Hadn’t even- I just had my 18th birthday. I didn’t know what I was going to do. My parents were like I know what you’re going to do. So I went into the army.

JUSTIN HUDNALL, HOST:

--she was stationed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center--

KELLI: It’s really tiny. It’s actually maybe-3 blocks?

JUSTIN HUDNALL, HOST:

-- right before September 11th. but I’ll let her tell you the rest.

KELLI: Hi, my name is Kelli Hewlett. My story is called Beyond The Lines. Alright, I’m going to just jump into it.

(prior recording) Young and without much direction in my life, my parents pushed me to join the army. They couldn’t afford higher education for me and my younger sister, and this was the only thing they could think of to make sure that we were educated. My mother was a US Army sergeant. She’d come to learn of a field in the military that gave back: a degree that translated to the civilian world when most did not.

So I found myself in a large room with a dozen of others, my right hand was raised as I was silently sobbing to myself as I was being sworn in. After being stationed at Walter Reed Army Medical Center right in the heart of D.C., one thing was for sure: I was going to do the rest of my 2 years and go back home to San Diego, back where the sun shines and the cold does not exist. From what I hear, I had a primo duty station at Walter Reed. My mom was stationed in Korea when I was a kid. It seemed like she was gone forever. I just wanted to know I could always just come back home, when most could not.

I was a nurse, working on a medical surgical unit, ward 68, that dealt with anything from ears, nose and throat to the gut. Every so often I would get “lucky” and get a young soldier who would come in and have to stay overnight for an appendectomy, which was actually refreshing. We could talk about movies that were filmed in color, we had music from this decade. Most of my patients the average was usually around 60 and above.

On September 11th, it all changed. I walked into an elderly man’s room with his Metamucil in tow; his television was on and his mouth agape. The towers fell. We went to war. Not too much longer after that our troops started to come home, but not in the fashion that the recruiters like to showcase. No. There were no GI mommy and daddy showing up in junior’s classroom, no hunky Marine showing up early and unannounced at a spouse's job, no. Tattered, scathed, broken both mentally and physically, that’s what we saw.

The unit I worked on transformed. The average age of my patients dropped to the early twenties. Men and women my age.

JUSTIN HUDNALL, HOST:

Do you remember your first patient in the war?

KELLI: My first patient in the war- The first I do remember was a young- he was so young. He was a young guy and he had a right leg amputation and um both of his arms were burned. I think one of his arms was amputated. You have to be innovative with that because (inaudible) ok so we give him his call light, he can hit it with what, you know? Or how is he going to be able to say he needs help if he doesn't’ have family here yet. You usually don’t think you have to take care of a 19 year old that much but I mean, you do. I mean, they are like so intensive and we were just the med surg kind of like you stay overnight and go home. Now we’re running out of capacity where people are like tubes everywhere and we deal with it every once in a while but that’s everybody. And you’re seeing surgeries you’ve never seen before, skin grafts you’ve never seen before. It just started picking up and it never stopped.

(prior recording) There were these nights where we’d do this assignment, this detail and it consisted of two nurses from each unit in the hospital. And we’d make our way downstairs to the third floor to this makeshift triage area, and then a bus would pull up full of soldiers. Some could get off under their own will, but the others had to be carried off of the litters and put onto gurneys, their bandages last changed long ago. We would see if they were stable, then figure out where to put them based on injury type and level of care needed.

Other nights a medevac would arrive on the helipad atop the hospital. That usually spelled a serious situation. I met one of those helicopters once. The patient died in the process of actually getting to the states, twice. They needed him to have a new military ID, since he was patrolling without one at the time of injury. His dog tags just weren’t enough. They took a picture of him in-flight. When they snapped it, he was soulless. The very fact that he ended up living was beyond me.

The hospital’s old rooms, once used for storage, were converted back into rooms that could bear patients. Soldiers were greeted with smiles and stifled tears, “Welcome to Walter Reed.” After some time it became a well-oiled machine. Telephone cards, cash aid on debit cards. Family would arrive soon thereafter.

There was joy and pain all at once. A father met his twin girls, only a few months old, for the very first time there. A 19 year old hugged his parents who were just happy to have their baby back. One young lady was able to reconnect, to her surprise, with her bomb dog. Considering her own injuries, she could only imagine that he had died. He jumped onto her bed and she wept for joy, lips trembling, tears streaming. And I was happy for myself too, to finally getting to see tears of relief.

Some significant others were just as distant as their returning counterparts. I changed IVs while they fidgeted, reluctant to hold a stump where a hand once held a wedding band, slow to talk about the future. Be it a lost limb, a disfigured face, an affixed bag to a stomach that will forever collect stool, the adjustment is the worst. We did our duty. We fixed their bodies, but we neglected their minds.

JUSTIN HUDNALL, HOST:

What was one of those experiences that was really affecting for you that you were kind of nervous about sharing?

KELLI: I feel that… like the....not like a moral injustice but it’s just the part of the cookie cutter notion of it. Why is everyone on the exact same med? Like everyone is on Seroquel and everyone is on this. So, it kind of got to me like, are we doing anything? We became so inundated with paperwork because there were soldiers that would get kind of lost in the shuffle and wouldn’t come back for follow ups or something like that. The forgotten soldiers you know and that’s always like that story. It’s sad because I was there witnessing some of it. Just didn’t kind of settle with you. These kids were so young and just so vulnerable. So yeah, that part was just hard for me, to be able to say specifically that did we do them justice? Was it right, you know? Um, how we did it? Or was that all we had that we could do, you know?

(prior recording) I was shocked by the amount of patients who actually wanted to go back to war. They weren’t done yet. Their brothers were still over there and they needed to go back. There were others that resented their time there. I had a patient of mine who exclaimed in his salty manner, "We trained those mother f---ers, and now they’re shooting us up with our own s--t too!"

It was years of this. I was drained and exhausted from not knowing how to deal with their baggage, coupled with my own emotions. But I shouldn’t complain, how could I? So I stuck to the script.

JUSTIN HUDNALL, HOST:

What’s the impact of taking care of that much intensive trauma on the nursing staff and on you?

KELLI: It’s exhausting because not only is your- your workload increase, but what you’re doing mentally is draining. Sometimes it’s hard for you to even do your job because they don’t want to deal with you or they don’t want you to take their vital signs. They don’t care about anything and they just want their morphine and they want you to get the heck out of their room.

JUSTIN HUDNALL, HOST:

Weren’t you telling me the story once- and I’m going to get the details wrong but didn’t you say something about seeing a patient at Applebee’s or the bar?

KELLI: Oh yes! Because Ruby Tuesday is like right down the street. So we all like ordered food or whatever for dinner and I go out there and one of my patients is at the bar. I’m just like oh this cannot be good. Because, the thing is he’s on a day pass so he has to come back. When he comes in, he’s going to ask for, of course, your percocet and your sleeping pills and I’m like but he had a beer. Like I saw him have a beer, so I have to say something to whoever his nurse is and be like listen, I saw him at Applebee’s. He was drinking, you know? We have to take extra precaution now but the thing is, if we don’t see that. If we don’t know that, how are we to know and can we be liable? You know all these things, and like who knows, because it’s Georgia Avenue and there’s a lot of crazy things in DC on Georgia Avenue. They could pick up anything there. So that’s another concern I have. Because they do like to party, they do know they’re in DC. But I am happy when they do tell me then I can be like ok this is the deal, you know. Because if you give them - at least give them the information, just so that they know because sometimes they probably just don’t. So you have to look at it that way.

(prior recording) My favorite perk, I do have to admit, was the huge celebrity turnout. I’ve hugged Stevie Nicks. I shook the hand of Mick Foley. I almost spilled pee on Justin Timberlake. Jon Voight had his own Camera guy and took photos with each soldier room by room. Tyra Banks and her long-legged crew were pretty popular with the guys, too. It was really good to see uplifted spirits, even if it was just temporary.

It was almost standard for the soldiers admitted in the hospital to be on some sort of antidepressant or mood stabilizer, bolster that with a sleeping aid, done in cookie cutter fashion. Everyone pretty much got the same thing. Granted, some changes were made if it didn’t seem to help. There were brief meetings with the psych doctor. The ones that displayed serious symptoms or who reached out were seen more. I don’t remember many follow-ups though, not for the masses.

Some soldiers came to Walter Reed and they never left. Their only escape would be the eventual day pass. They would soon return for pain and sleeping pills when their short supply ran out. A few even got a three-day pass. I naturally assumed that if you can leave the hospital grounds and don’t need to return for three days, well, you don’t need to stay in the hospital anymore, but then I wondered if they wanted to leave. Maybe there was nothing left for them without the military. They were used to the structure, they were used to the order. They were use to those walls. They were screaming for help, but all we gave them were pills.

JUSTIN HUDNALL, HOST:

Do you feel like you were able to watch the pharmaceutical addictions (inaudible)?

KELLI: Oh yeah. I mean it was drastic because one thing everyone was on was dilaudid pump, pca pump that self-administered pump. So you can give yourself a dose every 7 minutes or what have you. It was like a steady rate but they would be like ok you know what this is going well. We’re going to take away your pca. You know, and but the thing is, they’ve been on it for months. They try to titrate you off, then they’d take it away and everything hurts and they need something and they need it bad so they put them on percocet.Then they’re on percocet for very, very long time. And they we try to wean them off, you know, usually, but as soon as they leave, they’re coming back through the emergency room with excruciating pain. They need percocet, they need something, you know. Mostly I’m sure that it’s true, I think that people do feel pain but that I also think there is an addiction level there, but I don’t know if we discerned whether we took out the confounding variables, to find out which was really true but pain is what they say it is so we’re going to treat it as such.

(prior recording) The intake rate slowed down eventually, a few years into the war. Still, they just kept coming, and the cycle remained the same. I felt guilty sometimes that I was stateside. It’s like I got off easy because I wasn’t over there. I did have this one older soldier I had taken care of. He was a platoon sergeant, he was a squad leader. He had valor. He would give me tidbits of life advice and I would change his wounds. He listened as I told him how I felt one night, and when I was finished, he told me that I was on the front lines. That his soldiers needed me here to take care of them when they came back.

He’ll never know how badly I needed his permission to believe it myself.

Thank you.

JUSTIN HUDNALL, HOST:

Give it up for Kelli Hewlett. That is our show.

Incoming is produced by myself, Justin Hudnall. Original music by Chris Warren, Ariana Warren, and Kris Apple. Our theme music is by Tim Koch, aka 10:32 courtesy of Ghostly International. Kelly’s live performance was recorded along with much needed technical assistance by the wonderful Kurt Kohnen. Lea Singer is our Web Editor, Jim Tinsky does Web Development and special thanks to Grand Poobah and Program Director at KPBS John Decker, whose bearded benevolence is the reason we have this opportunity. If you have a story or you know someone who does, please go to

SoSay WeAllonline.com and check out our many other programs in the San Diego area. Thanks so much for listening. We’ll talk again soon.

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Tony Zuniga
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