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Central Iowa VA nurse awarded Distinguished Flying Cross, second in history


January 3, 2023

Des Moines , IA — Intensive Care Unit Nurse Manager at the Central Iowa VA Health Care System Katie Lunning will be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross January 7 marking only the second time the honor has been given to a nurse.

Intensive Care Unit Nurse Manager at the Central Iowa VA Health Care System and Minnesota Air National Guard air transport nurse, Maj. Katie Lunning, with the 133rd Airlift Wing, will be awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross January 7 at the 133rd Maintenance Group North Hangar in Saint Paul, Minnesota.

Lunning, who will be the second nurse ever presented the award, earned the DFC for her exemplary service during a six-month tour based in Qatar that began in July 2021.

As a member of a Critical Care Air Transport Team, a three-person unit meant to pick up the most critically injured or ill and fly them to the higher echelon of care, Lunning helped evacuate and care for patients coming out of Kabul, Afghanistan, amidst active conflict.

“We were pulling them out as they are getting injured,” said Lunning. “August 26th, when the suicide bomber exploded at Abbey Gate, we were the first CCATT in. It was the largest medical evacuation out of that coalition hospital ever, and very dangerous on the ground. We had to leave the airplane to go get our patients as well. We took injured Marines and Afghan civilians who really weren't flight worthy, but there was no choice. We just had to get them out of there. So, a lot of medical events occurred on the airplane, but we ended up being able to safely deliver everybody to Landstuhl, Germany [for further medical care].”

These events surround the harrowing final days of the American evacuation from Afghanistan, when engineering student turned Islamic State militant Abdul Rahman al-Logari strapped roughly 20 pounds of explosives to himself and killed more than 160 civilians and 13 American service members at the Abbey Gate entrance of the Hamid Karzai International Airport in Kabul, Afghanistan.

Lunning and the other members of her team worked around the clock to evacuate more than 20 patients out of the chaos as Afghanistan fell to the Taliban.

However, Lunning humbly described her experience as a matter of circumstance and said that she was glad to be in the right place at the right time to be able to help civilians and fellow service members in desperate need of evacuation and care.

“[In that moment] I was really just focusing on the job,” said Lunning. “We kind of came up with a mantra. We would say, ‘We can't control what's happening on the ground and what we can control is our jobs.’ So, we focused very much on getting people home. We all have kids right around the same age that we wanted to get home to. So, we just focused on getting everybody home to their people because everybody's going to have a why, right. We talked about that and how it was our role to get them back to their reason for being there.”

Lunning has a 9-year-old daughter with her husband, Joshua Lunning, who is the command sergeant major of the Recruiting and Retention Battalion at the Iowa Army National Guard.

Originally from Hastings, Minnesota, Lunning moved to Urbandale, Iowa, in 2019 following her husband’s promotion into his role at the Iowa Army National Guard RRB.

Lunning originally joined the Minnesota Army National Guard as a combat medic right out of high school, and then switched to the Minnesota Air National Guard to pursue nursing, receiving a direct commission as an officer during her career.

She began working at the VA in Minnesota as a student nurse in 2009 while she attended Bethel University in Saint Paul for her Bachelor of Science in Nursing. After graduating in 2012 she worked as a registered nurse in the intensive care unit where she stayed until moving to Iowa.

Lunning is now an ICU nurse manager at the VA Central Iowa Health Care System in Des Moines.

“I appreciate all of my experience at the VA, my VA training and my VA ICU nurse experience,” said Lunning. “That was really where I got the training that it took to accomplish the mission. My whole background has been at the VA, so I'm appreciative of everything the VA has given me, and I'm very grateful to not only take care of veterans on the front end, but I'm also very passionate about working at the VA and continuing the care for the veterans here at home.”



Katie Lunning is an intensive care unit nurse manager at Central Iowa VA Health Care System and a transport nurse with Minnesota Air National Guard 133rd Airlift Wing.

(Courtesy photo)



U.S. Air Force Capt. Katie Lunning, center, 379th Expeditionary Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron, critical care air transport team registered nurse, checks equipment on a C-17 Globemaster III in Kabul, Afghanistan, Aug. 20, 2021. Lunning participated in one of the largest human airlifts in United States history by providing medical care to evacuees or service members while onboard a C-17 Globemaster III.

(Courtesy photo submitted by Katie Lunning)

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