Navy Lt. Cmdr. James Gennari, RN, BSN, TNS, insists hes not the type who would enjoy telling, over and over, the story of how he came to earn the Bronze Star that was pinned to his chest in August.
But Gennari, a trauma nurse at the Capt. James A. Lovell Federal Health Care Center in North Chicago, Ill., said it is not just his sense of duty as an officer in the U.S. armed forces that compels him to share his tale. It is also his sense of pride at being a trauma nurse that provides strong motivation to discuss the act of heroism that earned him his medal.
“Im not anti-doctor, not by any stretch,” Gennari said. “But I feel its important to let everyone know that it was a nurse out there that day, not a Harvard-trained doctor or even a field medic. I want people to know that our hard work and training pays off.”
From August 2011 to March 2012, Gennari, 52, was deployed to Forward Operating Base Edinburgh in Helmand Province, Afghanistan, at a mobile surgical suite. On Jan. 12, Gennari received a call for which his years of experience and training had prepared him.
A helicopter was en route to the mobile OR with Cpl. Winder Perez, 21, who was flying in with an unexploded rocket-propelled grenade lodged in his leg.
According to protocol, Perez could not be brought into the medical unit because of the danger of the grenade going off.
So Gennari went to Perez.
“I was told I didnt have to go, but I said, ‘Yes, I do,” Gennari said. “Hes my patient, and I am a nurse.”
Working with an explosives specialist, Gennari administered pain medication and a reassuring bedside manner. He held eye contact with Perez, holding his hand and explaining what he was going to do, while plotting a course of action.
“He knew what was going on and was calm until the moment he blacked out,” Gennari said.
During a seven-minute procedure that was captured on video, Gennari and the explosives expert tugged the grenade from Perezs leg.
Once removed, the device was safely detonated in an explosion that would have been capable of destroying a vehicle.
“That was when I really realized for the first time that I had risked my neck,” Gennari said.
But the day wasnt over. From the mobile OR, Perez was flown by helicopter to a better-equipped hospital for surgery to begin repairing the extensive damage to his leg. During the flight, Perezs ventilator failed, and Gennari was forced to manually pump air with an Ambu bag into Perez. “To go through all that and then die because the … ventilator broke? I mean, come on,” Gennari said. “I wasnt going to let that happen.”
Gennari has learned through follow-up conversations with Perez that he has recovered enough to resume walking. For his actions, Gennari was awarded a Bronze Star in a ceremony at Lovell.
“I think a lot of people stay away from nursing, for whatever reason,” Gennari said. “But I believe what we do is noble.”
And Gennari said he knows of a young man who is appreciative — even if he doesnt remember much of the incident.
“He (Perez) said he remembers arriving in the helicopter and an old guy with glasses talking to him who promised hed never leave him,” Gennari said. “Thats enough for me.”
Jonathan Bilyk is a freelance writer.