When Carolyn Kirkland was a Navy nurse on an amputee ward, she often had to lift her patients in and out of bed, arduous work that ultimately led her to need back surgery in her early 30s.

But when she remembers that time, she doesn’t remember the hard work or the back pain. She remembers the men she cared for and their needs.

“Lifting guys out of bed, we didn’t have the equipment they do now,” she said. “But they had to get out of bed to go to physical therapy and work on their prosthetics.”

Earlier this month, Kirkland was named one of “5 over 50” in a five-county region honored for their contributions to the community. Every year in May, Aging Together honors one person aged 50 or older in each of five counties: Fauquier, Madison, Orange, Culpeper and Rappahannock. Aging Together is a coalition of mostly volunteer organizations that aim to serve older residents in the region.

Kirkland, 88, of Warrenton, was nominated by Molly Brooks, the founder of Hero’s Bridge. The nonprofit, based in Warrenton, supports elderly veterans. Kirkland is a star volunteer for the organization.

After serving 10 years as a Navy nurse, Kirkland left the service to support her husband, Bud, who was a U.S. Marine. They immediately began serving as volunteers with veterans’ organizations.

“Getting out of the Navy, it wasn’t a big deal for me working with veterans,” she said. “It was something I had to do. My husband did, also. We started at Quantico and worked across the state.”

Kirkland had a difficult upbringing, raised for much of her childhood in an Illinois orphanage in Illinois after her father died of a heart attack when she was 9 years old, and her mother suffered from mental illness. She was inspired to join the military by a series of Cherry Ames mystery novels in which the central character was a military nurse.

“She was a nurse and somehow that kind of stoked my interest as a kid in an orphanage,” she said. “So, I went into nursing. Before I knew it, I was raising my hand to join the Navy.”

A volunteer since 2018, Kirkland is an ambassador for Hero’s Bridge. She is literally a “poster child” for the organization, with her image serving as one of Hero’s Bridge’s “guardians of freedom” portraits.

“Carolyn is an example of a Hero’s Bridge veteran who does more for the organization than is done for her,” Brooks wrote to nominate Kirkland. “Her strong health, positive attitude and busy schedule put her in the very best position to enjoy a high quality of life in her senior years.”

Kirkland works directly with veterans served by the organization, including those suffering with challenges such as post-traumatic stress disorder. Those who return home from combat need support, she said.

“They come back trying to find their place in life where they are safe, and other people understand what they’ve been through,” she said.

There are many ways to support veterans, Kirkland said.

“It can be something so simple,” she said, “like a ramp for someone in a wheelchair or helping them get to a doctor’s appointment or get groceries. Or just being there to listen to them.”

Kirkland said she would prefer the attention on her was shifted to the veterans she served. Thinking back on her work with amputees, she said she believes their hard work in recovery deserved all the accolades.

It was hard, but those guys were so brave,” she said. “I don’t think people realized how brave those guys were.”

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