CAMP ZAMA, Japan – “I have been to war in Iraq … but this was a different war, the enemy was COVID-19.”
Lt. Col. Natalie Johnson still clearly remembers the dispirited atmosphere and how overwhelmed the health care team seemed when she joined them at Jacobi Medical Center in New York. They had been dedicating hundreds of restless hours to provide life-sustaining care to their patients.
It was right at the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020 when Johnson, then assigned to the 7456th Medical Operations Readiness Unit in Iowa, was called to New York to support the COVID-19 health care efforts there.
Today, Johnson continues that fight for the Army after moving nearly 7,000 miles away to Camp Zama, Japan, following her husband who was stationed here. She currently assists U.S. Army Medical Department Activity – Japan with providing COVID vaccines to the Soldiers and the community members on the installation. She also serves as a backfill at the nearby Yokota Air Base and at the Naval Hospital at U.S. Fleet Activities Yokosuka as an anesthesia provider.
Johnson, a native of Minnesota, said she was always fascinated by science, which led to her obtaining, as a junior in high school, her certification as a nurse aide and a medical assistant, and working to provide care to residents at a local nursing home.
Johnson was determined to go to college for nursing and said she knew in her heart the Army was the way to go in order for her to reach her next goal of becoming an advanced practice registered nurse and a certified registered nurse anesthetist. She enlisted in National Guard in 1997 at age of 17.
“I joined the Army out of a sense of duty to my country, the desire to do something meaningful, and to have pride in my accomplishments,” Johnson said.
After completing basic combat training and advanced individual training, she worked as an Army medic, teaching medical field care and combat lifesaving to Soldiers. She also served as the medical provider during other training events.
Johnson said the military has been a special place to grow and learn, both personally and professionally. Being given such responsibility at a young age, immediately after receiving her training, helped motivate her to continuously want to provide her fellow Soldiers with the utmost care at all times.
“Starting as an Army medic, [and] being the only medical provider readily available to the Soldiers, I was ‘Doc’ to them.” Johnson said. “This early experience, with such a high level of independence and responsibility, has motivated me through every career decision phase [since then].”
Johnson continued to learn and expand her education throughout her Army career. She graduated from Minnesota State University with a bachelor’s in Nursing in 2002, received her direct commission into the Army Nurse Corps in 2003, and attended the Officer Basic Course in 2004.
Johnson said her professional nursing goals are inseparable from her personal goals. She is currently enrolled in the University of Alabama’s Doctor of Nursing Practice program to progress her clinical aptitude and to better prepare herself for opportunities to lead, mentor, and educate others.
“Becoming a doctoral-prepared anesthesia provider will allow me the means to make changes through evidence-based practice for the best care to our patients and assure our health care workers are receiving the most advanced practice guidelines,” Johnson said.
Her family instilled in her at a young age the importance of motivation, drive, and giving 100 percent, which she tries to live up to in all aspects of her life.
“I strive for excellence and welcome challenges,” Johnson said.
She eventually left active duty to act as the “stability” of her dual-Army household and to care for their three elementary-aged children. She said “juggling” is a great word to describe her many roles: Being a mother, a wife, a Soldier, a doctoral student, and a medical professional.
Practicing good time management is key when trying to balance her career, her education, and her parental duties, she said. Her children rely on her to be a great mentor, role model and mom, and that is the most important job to her.
“I have never regretted putting my family before my career,” Johnson said. “I love every hat that I wear.”
The Army has been Johnson’s other family for 24 years and counting, and she said one of the most important lessons she has learned from her experiences is that by working for something beyond herself, she has been able to better her nation, her self-worth, and her resiliency beyond anything she would have believed.
She said she’ll need to take with her everything she has learned when she returns to the U.S. to take command, which she is scheduled to do this summer.
“I have learned many lessons throughout my nursing career, but the most important lesson is that by serving others and putting their needs before my own, I can make a difference.”