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Interview with Karen Gruber Trueblood [10/30/2004]

Evan Fulmer:

October 30th, 2004. Central Park Volunteer Fire Company. Karen Gruber, born on July 10th, 1955. [address redacted]. Evan Fulmer. Karen Gruber Trueblood. Okay. Okay. Can you please state what wars you were in, what branch of service, your rank, and where you served.

Karen Gruber Trueblood:

All right. I'm a Navy captain. I've been in the service since July of 1977, and I have served in the theater, I was in Iraqi Freedom, and served overseas in Kuwait and Iraq.

Evan Fulmer:

Okay. Were you drafted or were you enlisted?

Karen Gruber Trueblood:

I joined the Navy right out of college, I enlisted.

Evan Fulmer:

Where were you living?

Karen Gruber Trueblood:

At the time I was living here in Pittsburgh. I was working at a hospital, in Mercy Hospital -- or, I sorry, Magee Women's Hospital in Pittsburgh, and had had an interest in the Navy, and went down to the local recruiting office and signed up.

Evan Fulmer:

Why did you want to enlist?

Karen Gruber Trueblood:

Well, I had been associated with a lot of people that had been in the military, and I felt at the time -- it was a few years after the end of the Vietnam war, and I wanted to do something for our country __ to serve.

Evan Fulmer:

Why did you pick the Navy?

Karen Gruber Trueblood:

I had looked at the other services and I felt that the Navy had the best as far as it provided ground troops, it had an aviation portion, it had a sea service portion. And it just seemed to be an accumulation of all the other services wrapped up into one place.

Evan Fulmer:

Do you remember what your first few days in the service were like?

Karen Gruber Trueblood:

My first couple days were -- I was located up in Newport, Rhode Island, went to officer indoctrination school up there for six weeks, so that was an eye opening experience. Everyone I was with, however, was professionals. We were all attorneys, nurses, doctors, people that had graduated from college and were professionals, so we were all going -- we were learning the basics on how to salute, how to march. So it was a pretty interesting time.

Evan Fulmer:

Did you have any bootcamp experiences that, like, really stick out in your mind?

Karen Gruber Trueblood:

Just learning how to tread water. We had to dive off a platform or jump off of a platform into a swimming pool and tread water with our uniforms on, and that was difficult for me to do because I'm not a great swimmer.

Evan Fulmer:

Do you remember anything specific about your instructors? Did you like them? Were they --

Karen Gruber Trueblood:

At the time most of our instructors were lieutenants, officers -- or three rank officers, and as a ___ they seemed to be very senior, very knowledgeable, and I was kind of in awe of them. I just look back and think it's pretty funny nowadays.

Evan Fulmer:

Which wars -- war did you serve in?

Karen Gruber Trueblood:

Operation Iraqi Freedom last year. And I was the -- with the medical battalion. The Marines don't have their own obligated doctors and nurses with them, so they rely on medical personnel from the Navy to serve with them in the time of war or if they ever go out in the field to do things. So at the time, in September of 2001, I had been selected from applicants across the country to serve as the battalion commander for that unit, and it's made up of approximately 734 doctors, nurses, corpsmen, Marines, and we have 31 detachments throughout the country. Our headquarters is in San Diego, California. So two weeks after the bombing and we were attacked, I took command of that unit, and we knew almost immediately that we would probably be mobilized and serving somewhere in the world. So, that -- you know, we were called up. In January we got -- January of 2003 we got notice that we were going to be going to war. And I was -- went back on active duty at that point. Spent 30 days getting everything all lined up and ready to go for our unit. So it was a pretty interesting time to -- to make sure we were all trained up, our families were notified, and had all our preparations.

Evan Fulmer:

Do you remember arriving in -- in whatever country and what it was like?

Karen Gruber Trueblood:

We left March Air Force Base after we had spent three weeks in Camp Pendleton, and as the battalion commander of the unit, I was the first woman and first nurse ever to hold that position, so it was -- it was quite an awesome responsibility. But our first days when we flew over, we flew from March Air Force Base, California, directly into Kuwait, Kuwait City, and we had -- before we got off the plane we had our gas mask equipment with us, our flak jackets, our kevlar helmets, and all our full gear on as we deboarded the plane, and from there we were sent to a staging area. I just remember how hot, the heat, searing heat just hitting your face and how uncomfortable that felt.

Evan Fulmer:

Did you see any combat? Were you in any major battles?

Karen Gruber Trueblood:

We -- we were with the part of the military section that we set up hospitals. We had a -- tent hospitals assembled out there in the desert. And as -- then we broke that down further into what was called forward resuscitative surgical systems, and they are groups of 25 people that go forward with the combat teams that are going up, so that any Marine or soldiers injured, they have a combat surgical team there to perform lifesaving surgery, life and limb surgery, and keep that person stable until a helicopter can come in and pick them up. So a number of my battalion did go forward into those types of positions, and then the rest were set up along the Kuwaiti/Iraqi border to take incoming wounded from the surgical teams that would be brought back to us.

Evan Fulmer:

Tell me about some of your most mem -- memorable experiences.

Karen Gruber Trueblood:

I would say going up into -- taking a small convoy up through Iraq and seeing the -- in the town of Al Hillah, which is also where the ancient city of Babylon is from the Biblical times. Saddam Hussein had a very large palace there, and I was able to go up and meet with members of my unit that were -- that were sitting -- stationed there in one of these surgical tents, and going through and just seeing the -- the splendor Saddam Hussein was living in compared to the austere environments that his people were living in right outside the gates of his palaces, which were covered with beautiful mosaic tiles and -- and lush carpets and beautiful furniture, and then these people were living in mud huts, no electricity, limited water supply. So I think that's just the -- it looked like we were driving through Biblical times because nothing had changed, the progress and technology hadn't been used yet.

Evan Fulmer:

I see you were awarded several -- several things. Tell me about some of them.

Karen Gruber Trueblood:

I'm very proud of the Army Commendation and Army Achievement medals because it's really special when you get acknowledged by another service when you're not part of their service. So the Army Commendations are from, I had been the -- the commanding officer of a humanitarian service project that goes on above the Arctic Circle, and we provide medical, dental, optometry and veterinary services to the native Alaskan Eskimos, people living in the villages that don't have medical care. And we go in for two weeks and actually live in the village and treat everyone in the village. So the Army recognized me for my coordination of that because it involved coordination with Army, Air Force, Coast Guard, Alaska National Guard personnel, to put that type of project together.

Evan Fulmer:

How did you stay in touch with your family when you were at war?

Karen Gruber Trueblood:

I wrote letters. And what I had done before I had left, I had bought a lot of greeting cards and had presigned them and stamped them and gave them to a friend of mine here in Pittsburgh. So she would send -- I had already dated when the cards would go out, just in case. I wasn't sure that I would be able to send cards or what the mail would be like, so that my family and my children were getting greeting cards on time. Just little notes to let them know that I love them even though I wasn't around, to let them know that. And then about two months into the war I was finally able to get e-mail access, and I was able to start to e-mail on a fairly regular basis.

Evan Fulmer:

___+ What was the food like?

Karen Gruber Trueblood:

The -- we ate fairly well. There -- one of the things I missed the most was not having milk. It wasn't probably until about two months that we were there that I actually got milk, but it wasn't the type of milk that you and I drink. It's a radiated milk so it's able to sit on the shelf and it -- it doesn't spoil. And so we finally got that, which was a big help. But we did get a lot of fresh fruits and vegetables from the local area. We were able to -- the vendors that were serving us our food would go out in the public domain and bring us fruits and vegetables to eat. We seemed to have great potatoes and noodles every dinner, every night, always had that. And then we were served by Pakistanis that had been hired by the contractor to serve us our meals, so they would do all the cooking for us in a tent further down the road and then truck it down to our base camp where we were staying, and then we'd have -- always had a warm dinner and warm lunch. Well, we had a boxed lunch for lunch. It would be sandwiches and warm -- warm soda. And breakfast was usually hard boiled eggs and oatmeal and -- and cereal, dry cereal.

Evan Fulmer:

Did you have, like, plenty of supplies or somewhat minimal?

Karen Gruber Trueblood:

We had -- all the officers were 9 millimeter weapon. We each had our own gun, which you carried all the time. You always had that on your hip. Even when you went to the shower, you always had to take your weapon with you. I had my own flak jacket, I had a kevlar helmet, I had my own sleeping bag. Medical equipment -- and we had an enormous amount of medical equipment to treat our -- our soldiers and our Marines that would come in to us and be -- have a medical need. So, yes, we had an abundance of medical care to take everyone. And we had plenty of -- everyone had a cot to sleep on, and in the tents we -- the tents were rented from the Kuwaiti contractors. We lived in what we called muhaji (sp) tents. They were white tents that you see out in the desert and we lived in those. In July we actually got an air-conditioning unit inside the tents, so that was nice to have good air conditioning.

Evan Fulmer:

While you were at war, did you feel a lot of pressure and stress getting through it?

Karen Gruber Trueblood:

I think my biggest concern was the responsibility as a commander when you are taking to war over 500 people, and you're living in a safe environment and you're going into a war zone. You feel an obligation and a responsibility for all those personnel, and I think that weighed on -- on me daily, just for their safety, their -- their families back home, that they were being taken care of. So there was an enormous amount of concern about -- about them, not so much for myself, but for them and making sure that they had everything that they needed to do their job and to maintain, keep safe, but also keep Marines and sailors alive so that they could come home, too.

Evan Fulmer:

Was there anything special, like any little things that you used to do for good luck?

Karen Gruber Trueblood:

Yes. I carried -- my mom many years ago, whenever I was traveling with the -- up to Alaska or anywhere, Guatemala, she'd give me a cross to carry with me, and she'd always say, Always carry that with you. And then many friends of mine gave me different medals and things, so I've -- I've continued to wear them. I have this cross from a friend of mine in Alaska gave me that -- that was his cross that he had worn in military service. So those type of things, I have kept them in a certain pocket, and I carry certain pictures of my family with me all the time.

Evan Fulmer:

What did you guys do like in your spare time to entertain yourselves ___+?

Karen Gruber Trueblood:

Spare time. There wasn't a whole lot. I got up at 4:30 each morning and went and exercised. Basically we had -- we lived in a 1-1/2 mile circled area with sand berms up and then guards patrolling around. So I would run the berms for about an hour in the morning, and then we had a weight room inside the tent with some free weights and a rowing machine and I would exercise. And then at 6:30, take -- we were allowed a shower every other day, so we could take a 60-second shower, 30 seconds to get wet, 30 seconds we'd turn the water off, you could soap up, and then 30 seconds to rinse off, and then you had to -- that's all you were allowed. ___ cooked breakfast, and you reported to your work base at 8:00 in the morning. And then you'd have your bag lunch for lunchtime. And then you'd go to dinner. And usually after dinner I'd go back to work until about 8:00, and then come back to my tent and read. But we did have -- every night, we had a plywood board that was two pieces of plywood that were nailed together, and the -- we had a computer set up and we would do a -- play videos that people -- or DVDs that people had received from home. And so every night at 8:00 there was a movie. People would sit outside, and you'd bring your lawn chair. It was like going to the beach, and you'd sit out in the sand and watch a movie at night. We also had -- people would play -- play cards in their tent. A lot of them just wrote home. A lot of the time you were just so tired after a long day at work you just went to -- went to sleep.

Evan Fulmer:

What did you do when you were on leave?

Karen Gruber Trueblood:

When I -- when I flew back, I -- my one son came out to see me for three days and I got to visit with him, and we toured Southern California. Went to Hollywood, went to Universal Studios, and just kind of hung out for -- for a couple of days, and I slept. I went to a hotel and got to sleep in a real bed and take a shower for as long as I wanted and I took a bath. So I just wanted to relax. And it was very overstimulating, after being in the desert and not having a grocery store or shopping center or any roads or cars, and just being in a very austere place and living in a little 5 by 6 corner of a tent, it was too overwhelming to go back into shopping centers or to go to a mall and shop, too many people, too much to look at. So it took a couple weeks to really get back into the routine again, back in the United States again.

Evan Fulmer:

Where all did you travel while you were in the service?

Karen Gruber Trueblood:

I've been to the Arctic Circle four times. I've been to Annette Island, which is up in Alaska. I've been to Puerto Rico, and I've been to Flores, Guatemala. I did a humanitarian mission down there with the joint services. I was stationed in Great Lakes, Illinois and Portsmouth, Virginia, and I was stationed here in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania for eight years.

Evan Fulmer:

Do you recall any particularly funny or unusual events?

Karen Gruber Trueblood:

We had a situation -- a lot of people had never been out in the field before. Some of the people that we had deploy with us had been doctors and nurses that had served in hospitals before, so they hadn't been with the Marines -- Marine units before, but the rest of us had been serving with the Marines for approximately -- I had been with the Marines for 10 years by the time I went overseas with them, so I was quite familiar with living outdoors. We had a nurse that was relatively new to the military standing in line to use the porta potty out there in the desert, and when you went in, you had your gas mask with you all the time, you had your flak jacket on, you had your gun on. And so a man had come out of the porta john, she was going in, and came running out after he left, and she said, He's gone to the bathroom in the gas mask container. Apparently she thought the urinal that's in the porta john is where she put her gas mask in the porta john, so -- We -- we just played jokes on people a lot of times, with fake rats and stuff, would lay around in the tents or put them in containers, makeup containers.

Evan Fulmer:

Did you keep a personal diary while you were away?

Karen Gruber Trueblood:

I did a daily e-mail whenever I had e-mail. I sent a daily e-mail. And the -- my friends back home kept those e-mails and our correspondence back and forth. So I related a lot. Plus everyone that I wrote to saved their letters and returned those to me. I had started a diary, but once I got there I just had so much to do that I really didn't get around to writing about it every day.

Evan Fulmer:

Do you recall the day that your -- when you got home, what it was like?

Karen Gruber Trueblood:

The -- it was a bittersweet day. A large part of my battalion had redeployed back to the United States in June and I volunteered to stay on. There were 87 of -- of us that volunteered to stay. And I had taken over as the group surgeon for the first ___ forward, a group. And I was being recalled back to the United States in September to -- to complete a tour of duty. So as a result, the normal rotation for everyone flying together didn't happen for me, so I flew by myself. I left Kuwait City and was taken down. And it was very sudden because I was leaving good friends I had met and flying on a plane with a bunch of strangers. I really didn't have anyone. But when I landed in San Diego airport, I was met by my instructor, inspectors, and people from my staff that were there to greet me. So that was really nice.

Evan Fulmer:

What did you do in the days and weeks after when you got back?

Karen Gruber Trueblood:

When I came back, I was -- I returned to Camp Pendleton and I went right back into the routine of starting -- we had a lot of returning sick that were coming back, and I was overseeing the -- my unit going through the debriefings, the medical evaluations, and getting them -- finishing up all their evaluations, their awards that they were getting, doing all the paperwork that needed to be completed back here in the United States.

Evan Fulmer:

Did you work or --

Karen Gruber Trueblood:

I -- I got off active duty October 28 of 2003, and I came back to Pittsburgh. I left California October, came back to Pittsburgh, and took a month off, because suddenly it was the holidays and Christmas was coming, and I wanted to just relax and spend some time with my family and get augmented back into the -- you know, being home again.

Evan Fulmer:

That was only like a year ago.

Karen Gruber Trueblood:

Right.

Evan Fulmer:

Okay. Did you make any really close, tight friendships that you still keep in touch with while you were overseas?

Karen Gruber Trueblood:

I'm still serving. I have a number of roles that I'm serving in right now, so I'm still in the military. I hope to continue for a number of more years. But, yes, I've met some friends from the early days, we still keep in touch. And then I've met some very dear friends that I'm in contact with a couple times a week. We e-mail each other, we talk on the phone, we have long conversations. So that's a -- that's a bond that doesn't go away. It's just like your family.

Evan Fulmer:

Did any of your military experiences influence your thinking on politics or the war or anything about the military in general?

Karen Gruber Trueblood:

I think the -- before I left, I had always wondered if the training that I was doing or the training that I was providing to my troops was adequate. And being -- serving in war proved that we have the best trained people, the most motivated people, and to go into a country that's been under a dictatorship and then to suddenly see people being given freedom of choice, freedom to walk down the street, freedom for children to go to school. We actually helped people graduate. We conducted courses and classes and helped the first graduating class from the Diyala University to finish their medical degree. So we actually provided doctors that helped them do that. And, you know, our country may be criticized, and we have the right to do that here, which is good. That's a good thing, for people to have choices and to speak their minds. And when you get overseas, you realize how proud you are to be an American and how much we do have when you are in a country that doesn't have freedom. And it's something that I would go in a minute if I was asked to go again. I will -- I will serve anywhere because we -- we are a good country, and freedom gives people choices, and every -- allows them to do -- have their dreams, and that's what we need to allow people to do.

Evan Fulmer:

Good. How did your serving in the wars and your experiences affect your life now?

Karen Gruber Trueblood:

I think I'm -- I think I have a different view when I look at things long term down the road and how I do things now, what effect it has on other people. I want my children to grow up free. I want my grandchildren to be that way. I think -- you know, I'm proud of everyone that I served with. I couldn't have gone to war with a better group of people. And if any of them ever need me for anything, you know, I'm going to be there to help them out. So it's just a different way of life. I realize that the little petty things that we worry about each day, you know, if you get ticked off for someone not going through the, you know, green light on time in the 2 seconds when it changes from red to green, those things are really unimportant in life. And being able -- the fact that we have good health, we have health care. We have the ability to have food on the table, to go in and have choice in a grocery store. We can drive our car across town without someone asking us for an identification. I mean, these are the little things that people take for granted every day, that was just really -- come to light when you were serving in a depressed environment where other people haven't had that. Where women can walk down the street wearing, you know, pretty much anything they want, and then when you were over in Kuwait or Iraq and you see women with their faces covered and they're not allowed to speak their mind.

Evan Fulmer:

Tell me about your family.

Karen Gruber Trueblood:

I have a 24-year-old son who's an animator in New York City, and then I have triplets that are 22. And my youngest of the triplets is a second lieutenant in the Marine Corps, he's just now going through training in Quantico, Virginia, and next year more than likely he will be serving in Iraq or some -- Afghanistan, he will be going to war. And I'm hoping that maybe by then things will be done that we won't have to have him go over, but if not, he's -- he's trained, he's motivated, and ___+. And my husband serves also. He is with the -- the National Guard, Air National Guard here in Pittsburgh.

Evan Fulmer:

Is there anything else you'd like to add that we haven't covered?

Karen Gruber Trueblood:

You know, I gave them a tape of an interview that I did live when I was overseas. The WPPT out of Pittsburgh here was able to connect with me, and we did a live radio -- that's a -- I have a copy of the broadcast that was done.

Evan Fulmer:

Great. Thank you very much.

Karen Gruber Trueblood:

Thank you.

 
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