Esteemed as a combat nurse –and as ‘Mom’

(BuffaloNews.com) Cheryl Celotto is a hero not only in the throes of combat, with her steady healing hands, but on the homefront, putting food on the table for her children.

In 1979, the mother of two young daughters needed extra money to keep her family afloat. Recently divorced and the sole breadwinner, she found that her salary as a licensed practical nurse came up short.

So she went back to nursing school with her sister, Patty Ralabate, also an LPN, and both became registered nurses.

Yet even as an RN, Celotto said, there was never enough money to pay all the bills. Her problem was solved when a friend in 1983 mentioned the Army Reserve.

“I didn’t know anything about the Reserve, but I joined its Army Nurse Corps, and it was the best move I ever made,” Celotto said. “I got to do something different.”

Like what?

“Like firing weapons, rendering medical and surgical care in the field, driving Humvees and learning land navigation.”

Then things really got “different.”

As a captain in 1990, Celotto was deployed to the Middle East for Operation

Desert Storm, the Persian Gulf War.

“I was scared to death. I’d never been in a war before. But as it turned out, we were stationed in Oman. I was in the ‘way-back evac,’ and all we treated were lumps and bumps from our older soldiers,” she said.

During that three-month deployment, Celotto said, she never once came anywhere near the front-line action. But in 2003, when the Iraq War started, Celotto, by then a major, was not only treating severely wounded troops, but serving under continual enemy fire in Iraq.

“I was serving with 1982nd Forward Surgical Team, and we were stationed in Baquba, and every night from April to October, the enemy mortared us. It was not fun. Every time you turned around, we had to go into the bunkers.”

Working conditions were hot and rudimentary.

“In August, the temperature hit 149 degrees,” she recalled. “Our hospital was located inside what had been a slaughterhouse for sheep. We cleaned it, and it was also hot in there because it contained the heat.”

That was not the worst of it. There was the horror of war.

“We’d have young soldiers come in, and they would be in a state of shock and talking to you while half a limb was missing,” she said. “Or you’d see Iraqi children come who had been out playing and found a land mine.

“Then we’d have to treat the enemy. We did our job, and we’d ship them to the local hospital, and sometimes they didn’t want them. They’d go somewhere. We couldn’t keep them.”

And though Celotto never suffered a combat wound during her tour, she underwent emergency surgery to remove her gallbladder.

“I was taken to the USS Comfort in the Persian Gulf and had the surgery. They wanted to send me stateside, and I said no. I hitched a ride on a medevac helicopter and made my way back to my unit four days after the surgery.”

When her deployment was completed, Celotto said, it felt great to be back home with her daughters and grandchildren.

“The day after I got home, I went for a souvlaki at Kostas at Hertel and Parkside. It was sooooo good.”

As a reservist, Celotto continued to advance in rank, first to lieutenant colonel in 2004; five years later to colonel. She also worked full time as a nurse at what was then Millard Fillmore Hospital at Gates Circle and later at University Gynecology and Obstetricians.

A year ago, she retired from the military, but ever so reluctantly.

“They made me retire because of my age and rank, and because they were downsizing the nursing corps,” she said.

And though this colonel’s feathers were slightly ruffled, Celotto says, she knows that her former military colleagues hold her in a special place in their hearts.

Last month, they summoned her to the Army Reserve Center in Shoreham, Suffolk County, to receive the Legion of Merit.

Recalling that special day, daughter Nicole Celotto, 35, who also made the trip, said that there were posters and pictures of her mother everywhere.

“I know her as ‘Mom,’ yet these people know her as ‘ma’am’ and an accomplished colonel,” Nicole Celotto said.

“Since the age of 9, I’ve watched my mother’s love for the military increase with time. Friends and adventures . . . continued through the years. She took pride in wearing her uniform.”

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