Retired Lt. Col. Gail Erlitz had a sense of discontent in the late 1970s.
At 24, she’d been working as a registered nurse in New York City for a couple of years, but she wanted more from her job.
“I was making $14,000 a year and living in an apartment owned by the hospital,” she said.
Because the hospital owned the building, her rent was subsidized. She couldn’t leave her job without losing that subsidy, and she couldn’t afford rent in Manhattan. Instead of staying in a position she wasn’t happy with, Erlitz visited an Army recruiter.
Her commitment was three years.
“I looked at it as an adventure,” said Erlitz who’d spent all her life to that point in New York. She wanted to travel.
Her two years of nursing experience put her in as a first lieutenant.
“I was Private Benjamin,” said Erlitz referring to the 1980 movie starring Goldie Hawn about a young Jewish woman, who, although the least likely candidate to do so, joined the Army. “I’m Jewish and from New York.”
And she probably fell into that least likely category as well. She remembers going to her officer orientation, where she was told she’d do push-ups, sit-ups and run one mile.
“I said, ‘My recruiter never told me I’d have to run a mile in combat boots,’” she said. “I ran, but I did it grudgingly.”
Her first assignment took her to the opposite coast — the Presidio in San Francisco, where her colleagues became like family, and she loved her job. Her next assignment took her to Fort Lee, Va., where she met her husband, David St. Martin.
By the late 80s, the couple was in Germany and expecting twin sons.
Erlitz remembers traveling through East Berlin in July 1989 and going through the various checkpoints. As a military officer, she was required to wear her Class A uniform with her rank insignia but without her name tag.
She said she got quite a few odd looks because she was wearing a maternity military uniform at the time.
She said they were told if they had any problems with the Stasi, the East German state security office, to demand to speak to the Soviets.
She recalled wondering how the people of East Germany could possibly be enemies of the United States. All she saw was the poverty they lived in.
“I saw a butcher shop with a long line in front of it, and they had nothing except oxtail,” she said.
Toilet paper was another product she didn’t want to get in East Germany.
“It still had splinters in it,” she said and then laughed.
Less than four months after her visit, the wall came down, and not much longer after that, Desert Storm happened.
Erlitz had been in the United States at a conference when she heard Saddam Hussein had invaded Kuwait. The gravity of the situation hit her. Until that point, she’d served during a time of peace.
The family was still in Germany when the Desert Storm started. Many of the hospital personnel in Germany were sent into the Middle East with reservists backfilling positions. She and her husband were required to come up with a dependent care plan for their 8-month-old twins
“That was scary. I remember crying, thinking about dying, and my children not knowing their parents,” she said.
With the short nature of the war, Erlitz and St. Martin were never deployed and didn’t have to treat too many people injured in the Gulf.
Once they returned stateside, they were assigned to Fort Gordon. He retired first, followed by Erlitz in 1997.
Erlitz’s career as a military nurse was multi-faceted. She worked with patients, financial officers and other administrators. The Army paid for her to get her master’s degree. She also oversaw a construction project and helped implement computer systems.
All those assignments in the Army gave her a beefy resume in the civilian world. Not many registered nurses in the civilian sector had the variety of opportunities she had to work in so many aspects of hospital life. She spent another 15 years working for University Hospital, where she served as clinical systems coordinator.
“I made an amazing decision at 24 to go into the Army,” she said.
Now retired a second time, she still works a few days a week in a local medical office, but she protects her time to follow after that love that drove her into the military to begin with – travel. Her travels have spanned the globe, and she’s happy that things are opening up again.