I Am Navy Medicine – Lt. James E. Kirlin, Navy Nurse Corps Officer

US Navy | May. 9, 2022

By Douglas Stutz

Lt. James E. Kirlin (right) lends a guiding hand with other Urgent Care Clinic staff at Naval Hospital Bremerton during a training evolution.

Watching the 9/11 terrorist attack unfold over 20 years ago brought a Casper, Wyoming native from the Rockies to Navy Nurse Corps ranks.

Lt. James Kirlin, Natrona County High School graduate class of 2002, has gone from Naval Aviation to Navy Medicine in a career path defined by operations undertaken on a nuclear aircraft carrier flight deck to operations performed at Naval Hospital Bremerton’s Urgent Care Clinic.

His 20-year Navy career has taken him from deploying on USS George Washington (CVN 73) in support of the opening days of Operating Iraqi Freedom in the Persian Gulf to providing medical assistance and humanitarian aid while onboard hospital ship USNS Comfort (T-AH 20) to Latin America and Caribbean nations.

Yet perhaps no assignment exemplifies Kirlin’s commitment to helping those in need than his work spanning the winter of 2021-2022. He deployed to two U.S. civilian hospitals, working in conjunction with U.S. Northern Command and the Federal Emergency Management Agency response to help ease the burden of COVID-19.

“From December to February I was at San Juan Regional Medical Center in Farmington, New Mexico. For March of this year I was at the University of Utah Level-1 Trauma Center in Salt Lake City. For both of these deployments, the mission was geared more towards helping stressed and under-staffed healthcare systems rather than focusing solely on COVID. During both of these missions, our team [physicians, nurses, hospital corpsmen with respiratory technician specialty and admin support] seamlessly integrated alongside our civilian counterparts and functioned as full-scope staff members,” said Kirlin.

With his background as the division officer of NHB’s UCC, Kirlin worked in the emergency room at San Juan Regional Medical Center helped on their under-staffed trauma team.

In Utah he assisted with inpatient care on a trauma unit.

“Both deployments provided tremendous stress relief for the staff at these facilities, allowing for both hospitals to open additional ER and inpatient beds. For myself, these deployments provided invaluable clinical sustainment opportunity. The level of acuity that I was working with was much higher than I would typically see at a military treatment facility,” Kirlin said.

As with any deployment away from home, there were hurdles to clear.

“The most challenging aspect was the unpredictability for both and having to suddenly be away from family at a moment’s notice. For both deployments I had only a four or five day notice, which was particularly difficult for my wife and children with me suddenly being gone over the holidays. As much as it was me who deployed to help our nation in a time of need, my family made as big of, if not more of a sacrifice,” stated Kirlin, adding there were additional stressors including providing close monitoring and acute care to patients on a daily basis and being exposed to high levels of trauma and suffering, with unfortunate outcomes in many instances.

Yet as with most deployments, along with adversity were encouraging moments.

“The most gratifying experience of these deployments was when patients became aware that we were U.S. Navy. Being able to experience their heartfelt, sincere gratitude for our role in their very individual healthcare experiences gave me a strong sense of pride. It was also extremely gratifying to work within the Navajo community, both with Navajo patients and alongside Navajo healthcare workers. High levels of healthcare disparity persist in the Navajo Nation community, and for the U.S. Navy to help this community in a time of high need was a very personally rewarding experience,” related Kirlin.

In 2020 and 2021 there were approximately 50 staff members assigned to NHB who answered the call when and where needed during the pandemic. A similar refrain upon returning from all was the distinctive professional as well as personal fulfillment of being able to care for fellow countrymen and women.

“I have been in the Navy for 20 years, with multiple deployments and overseas assignments. Being able to directly help our own country in a direct way was special. These missions really spoke to the strength of Navy Medicine and our ability to respond, no matter the mission. It also provided an opportunity for these medical response teams to act as ambassadors for the Navy within our own country, allowing civilians all over to see Navy Medicine in action and gain insight into what it is we do,” stated Kirlin, who joined the Navy immediately after high school.

Kirlin began as an undesignated airman, working with fixed wing and rotor aircraft, advancing up the enlisted ranks to petty officer first class. In 2010, with the U.S. and coalition allies battling at two fronts that he decided to change his career path.

“I was looking for a career that was aimed at helping people. During the height of the Iraq and Afghanistan campaigns, there were very high casualties, including a very close friend and roommate of mine who was killed by a Taliban sniper in 2010 in Helmand Province [Afghanistan]. I gradually felt that my calling was to help the military in a medical capacity,” recalled Kirlin, who was accepted to Medical Enlisted Commissioning Program in 2012, began nursing school at Old Dominion University in 2013, graduated Suma Cum Laude in 2016, and commissioned in the Navy Nurse Corps.

His first duty station in Navy Medicine was working in cardiac critical care at Naval Medical Center Portsmouth, Virginia, where he earned his Progressive Care Certified Nurse (PCCN) certification. He also deployed onboard the USNS Comfort during that time to Ecuador, Peru, Colombia, Panama and Honduras before transferring to his current assignment at NHB.

“It has been an extremely rewarding experience to serve as a nurse while wearing the U.S. Navy uniform. Some of the most rewarding experiences involved representing America and the U.S. Navy while providing humanitarian aid to South America,” said Kirlin.

Whether haze gray underway thousands of nautical miles from home or plying nursing skill in the American southwest, putting service before self has been a continual theme for Kirlin during his two decades.

“The Navy is truly what defines a high reliability organization. For all of our challenges, when the call to deploy is made, Navy Medicine rises to the occasion and gets the job done, every time. To be a part of such a high-functioning team that can respond to any crisis, anywhere in the world, at a moment’s notice, gives me a sense of pride and purpose that would be hard to find in any other occupation,” explained Kirlin.

“Our chief mission in Navy Medicine is to be ready to answer the call when our nation needs our service on or in support of the battlefield,” continued Kirlin. “As a Nurse Corps officer, I have been able to hone my leadership skills to help lead these future medical missions, and I have been able to improve my clinical skills by supporting military treatment facilities, supporting humanitarian aid in times of crisis, and by supporting civilian hospitals during our nation’s struggle with COVID-19.”

When asked to sum up his experience with Navy Medicine, Kirlin replied, “I am honored to be part of a team of professionals that are highly adaptable and willing to meet any challenge head-on, from domestic crisis such as the COVID-19 pandemic, to ensuring that our medical forces are ready to support Soldiers, Sailors and Marines on the battlefield in a moment’s notice.”