By Traci Chapman
Next month, a Mustang nurse working for Oklahoma City Veteran’s Administration Health Care System’s downtown center will head to Washington, D.C. as American Legion’s 2017 National VA Health Care Provider Award.
Jillene Sroczynski has had a varied career, but it’s at the VA Center she has found her true calling, she said, helping veterans with health challenges in a climate she intimately knows, because as a former U.S. Air Force pilot, she’s part of their world.
“It’s especially important to me to remember where I’ve been and what my experiences were in the Air Force and how everyone we treat has been in the same position – many much more with intense, painful and emotionally challenging memories and issues,” Sroczynski said. “It means the world that I can be there for them and help them through what they’re facing.”
Sroczynski said she became a member of Mustang American Legion Post 353 after her father suggested it. John Knutson, himself a Post 353 member served in the Vietnam War; her mother, Vivian, is a member of the Auxiliary.
The national award actually came about because of Post 353, Sroczynski said. Commander Paul Ray approached her and said he wanted to throw her name in the hat for the award – something she thought would just end there.
“There are so many accomplished and amazing people working throughout the country for the Veteran’s Administration – I just never expected it to go any further,” Sroczynski said. “When Paul told me about it, I just didn’t think it was for real for the longest time.”
It was indeed real, as last week Department of Oklahoma Commander John Bloxom traveled to Post 353’s monthly meeting to jointly with Ray present Sroczynski with a legislative proclamation signed by Rep. Leslie Osborn (R-Mustang) and Sen. Lonnie Paxton (R-Tuttle). Sroczynski and Bloxom will in February travel to Washington, D.C., where she will receive the national award.
The honors were a big deal for a Montana girl who in 1992 graduated from Montana State University with a computer science degree. During college, Sroczynski took part in ROTC; after graduation, she went into the U.S. Air Force, where she flew KC-135 Stratotankers.
“It was the best thing, I absolutely loved every single minute of it,” she said.
But, things changed in the wake of the Sept. 11, 2001 attacks. Sroczynski’s husband, Andrew, served in the Air National Guard, and the couple knew things would change – the country was headed to war.
“We knew it was time for me to get out, that it was just smart with a small child,” Sroczynski said. “So, my life really changed as I decided to stay home as our family grew.”
The couple would have three children – Megan, Gunnar and Julia – and Sroczynski spent the next decade as a stay-at-home mom. When her youngest daughter, Julia, began preschool, Sroczynski decided it was time to go back to work.
Her new career would be nursing, she decided.
It was not necessarily a completely new thought. In the years since Sroczynski retired from the Air Force, the family experienced a tragedy, and it was a nurse who helped her at one of the lowest times of her life, she said.
“This nurse was the kindest, the most understanding person, and the person that I needed at that time,” Sroczynski said. “I knew that I wanted to work again, and I missed the camaraderie of the military – and I saw that was something very strong in the nursing field, so I knew where I was meant to be.”
Sroczynski then jumped in, first attending Oklahoma City Community College’s nursing school, then completing training at Oklahoma City University’s Kramer School of Nursing. Degree in hand, Sroczynski was as certain about where she wanted to be a nurse as she had been that nursing was what she was meant to do. She applied to Oklahoma City’s VA Medical Center – and waited.
“I tried for three or four months to get a job at the VA Center, and I was starting to worry that I might have to go somewhere else first and then come back and apply again at the VA, when I was so lucky – there was an opening,” Sroczynski said. “They needed someone in the intensive care unit, and I was basically offered the job right then.”
From the start, Sroczynski knew her instincts were correct. While the ICU was amazingly busy, the pace fast and at times beyond stressful, Sroczynski said she loved her job – and the people, both patients and the co-workers who worked side-by-side to help veterans when they needed that help the most.
“They are amazing people, the staff that works there,” she said. “It’s kind of a calling to work at the VA Center, it’s certainly not easy, but it’s so, so fulfilling.”
Sroczynski worked in the ICU, one of three intensive care units in the sprawling Oklahoma Center Veteran’s Center facility, for about three years. She then moved to the intervention radiology department – and found she could love her job even more, beyond anything she’d ever dreamed possible.
“The other staff members, the patients, just working at the VA Center – it’s a fun job, a fulfilling job, and I wouldn’t change any of it,” Sroczynski said. “I loved what I did before changing over to this department, but this is so, so far beyond that.”
Sroczynski is one of three nurses who, along with two doctors and three radiology technicians, comprise the intervention radiology department. It’s a job with long hours and more than it’s share of challenges, but something she said she would never change.
“Being a nurse is harder than flying airplanes – emotionally, physically, it’s a coordinated chaos when you’re trying to save somebody,” Sroczynski said. “It’s more than I expected it to be, but it’s so rewarding.
“To be given an award for doing what I love, where I love to do it, is beyond anything I could have believed,” she said.