Rachel Whisenand has had one dream job after another since graduating from the Yavapai College Nursing Program in 2005.

She’s worked as an air ambulance nurse in remote Arizona locales, as a trauma nurse in top hospitals and as a travel nurse based out of North Carolina. Just five months ago, she landed a nursing instructor position at YC.

But the job she is particularly proud of and has desired since childhood, is serving as a captain in the U.S. Air Force Reserves. Rachel’s work as a critical care nurse with the 944th Fighter Wing recently earned her Company Grade Officer of the Year, the unit’s highest honor, for 2019. The award recognizing Rachel’s contributions to the Air Force and the community, was a surprise.

“It was an honor just to be nominated. I never would have thought I would have won out of the 1,100 men and women in my fighter wing,” she said.

The granddaughter of U.S. Marine and Navy veterans, Rachel contemplated a military career early and often growing up. “It was the only thing I ever wanted to do, was try to be a military nurse.” She was especially keen to build on her grandmother’s legacy of service in the U.S. Navy.

But life events, like motherhood and knee surgery, prevented Rachel from pursuing a military career. They didn’t prevent her from pursuing nursing. “I like to give back. You don’t get into nursing unless you want to help people,” she said.

Eleven years into a nursing career punctuated by continuing education, training and a master’s degree, the circumstances were finally right for Rachel to serve her country. She had returned to her Prescott-area roots and to the Yavapai Regional Medical Center emergency room  – her first employer out of nursing school – where a colleague suggested she look into the Air Force Reserves.  

During a subsequent visit to Luke Air Force Base, Rachel learned that the 144th Fighter Wing had an opening for a critical care air transport nurse. Within months, Rachel was raising her right hand and preparing to carry out the the 144th Fighter Wing’s mission on behalf of the men and women she called the “biggest patriots in the world.”

That mission is providing medical evacuations for servicemen and women, military contractors and, when needed, civilians worldwide. She trains a minimum of one weekend per month plus an additional two weeks per year. So far, she hasn’t had to use her training. Rachel considers that a positive. “That means my services aren’t needed.” 

Rachel juggles her military service with part-time employment at YRMC, with nursing instruction at YC and her family life with husband, Danny, a current YC nursing student, and daughters, Addison, 12, Kaylee, 9, and Sophia, 6.

“I’ve always had multiple jobs since graduating from nursing school. Right now, I really feel like I have a great balance in my life. I get to influence students. And I get to be in the military and be part of something bigger than myself.”

Asked if she helps Danny with his nursing school homework, Rachel replied, “I answer more than a few questions.”

That’s not a big sacrifice for Rachel. Neither is her military service. “I was given a gift,” she said. “I am skilled in critical care. These 18-year-olds who are putting their lives on the line -- I may be bringing them home to their families for the last time.”