College professor appointed commander of military hospital

Perhaps the military is in her blood. After all, her father did serve in the Navy during World War II. Perhaps she simply happened upon it by chance, her interest piqued by a graduate school classmate who was a member of the reserves.

Either way, Col. Leslie Rice, a full-time nursing professor at the College and an Army Nurse Corps reservist for the past 25 years, has dedicated herself to a lifetime of service – and is more than happy to do so.

Col. Rice was recently appointed commander of the 344th Combat Support Hospital (CSH) located in Fort Totten, N.Y. She is both the first female and nurse to command this hospital.

While Rice is passionate about her position in the military, her service has always centered on the field of nursing.

“I’ve always known that nursing is a special skill,” she said. “I wanted to be able to get out and help people, whether I believed in the war that was going on or not.”

Rice’s desire to help people led her to pursue both a bachelor’s and master’s degree in nursing from the University of Pennsylvania. Afterward she received her doctorate at New York University before turning to the College for her post-master’s certificate as a Family Nurse Practitioner.

In 2000, Rice was appointed as the Chief Nurse to the 344th CSH. Her recent promotion to commander happened when the previous commander left his tenured position and she was chosen to take his place.

“Being a nurse brings a perspective that most commanders don’t have,” Rice said. “Many commanders come into this role without knowing what the hospital is all about. But I do. I know the staff, and I know the people. It’s all very exciting.”

The 344th CSH is essentially a portable hospital, designed to treat patients in any type of hostile or wartime environment. The hospital is contained within isoshelters – metal, self-contained boxes that house operating rooms and labs – and temper tents, both of which can be loaded onto flatbed trucks and vans for easy transportation.

The complete hospital requires 15 acres for setup and has the capability of housing 296 beds. However, Rice said, “in insurgent wars, such as that which is taking place in Iraq, an entire hospital unit will never be deployed. Instead, a slice of it will: around 44 beds, two intensive care units, one intermediate care center, one operating room, a pharmacy and lab.

During peacetime, Rice’s unit practices assembling and disassembling various parts of the hospital, as well as caring for patients with army equipment. The unit spends its weekends training, working on soldier skills, medical skills or a combination of the two.

The weekend trainings culminate in Annual Training, a period of two weeks over the summer in which the reservists set up the hospital under simulated war conditions including enemy fire. They use mannequins to perfect their techniques in treating injuries, wounds and illnesses.

As commander of the 344th CSH, Rice is responsible for all aspects of training, including the use of army equipment.

“I lead the pack, so to speak,” she said. “I tell my unit what I want and expect from them, and they follow.”

If her unit is deployed to Iraq, Rice will go with it, leaving the United States for 12 to 18 months. Although she has never been deployed in her 25 years of service, she approaches the possibility with optimism and excitement.

“This is my job, this is what I’ve trained for all these years,” she said. “I want to finally be able to put my training to use. If something happens to me while I’m gone, I don’t want my friends and family to blame the war, because I wanted to be there.”

Within the Army Nurse Corps, most of the reservists are female. Therefore, Rice has seen little of the discrimination that plagues women in other areas of the military. Even though she has always had a male superior, she does not feel that she was hindered from doing what she wanted to do.

Still, she offered some advice for women at the College who might think of pursuing a similar path.

“Be smart,” she said. “Learn the rules and regulations. Knowing what you are speaking about is what allows you to stay on par with the men. Most importantly, get in there and do the same things that the men do.”

Aside from carrying out her military duties, Rice also carries a full course load at the College, teaching medical and surgical courses within the School of Nursing. On top of that, she receives the equivalency of a teaching credit for her work at the Trenton Adult Health Clinic, where she serves as a nurse practitioner each Thursday.

While she said it can be difficult to balance all of the duties within her life, Rice goes about them without complaint. “Nobody wants to hear me complaining about the army,” she said. “I don’t want my full-time job to suffer because of the military.” She also said that the School of Nursing has been supportive of all of her endeavors.

Despite the threats of a dangerous war and her often intimidating schedule, Rice has no plans to leave her military career behind, at least until mandatory retirement forces her to step down at age 60.

“When I joined the reserves back in grad school, I decided to stay as long as I was learning something and having a good time,” she said. “As soon as it got tedious, I would leave. But 25 years later, I’m still here. That certainly says something.”