GCU grad recalls her time as nurse in Afghanistan

Capt. Christine Collins provided care for many children at a free clinic in Farah, Afghanistan.

By Ashlee Larrison
GCU News Bureau

It was just an average Wednesday a few weeks ago when a familiar sight popped up on Christine Collins' iPhone news feed.

Images showcasing a particular section of mountains brought with them a heart-wrenching realization.

“That looks like Farah, Afghanistan,” she said to herself.

The news of Afghan cities falling to the Taliban like dominoes left the Grand Canyon University alumna and former Air Force captain and trauma and critical-care nurse in tears.

“I clicked on the article and I had read that Farah had fallen to the Taliban, and I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, what about all of the people, all the children that I treated, all the women?’” she said. “My heart sunk into my stomach and I thought, ‘This is really happening.’”

Collins (left) served in the Air Force for 15 years.

From treating disfigured men, women and children to being tracked by Hezbollah terrorists, Collins’ time in the Middle East left a lasting impact.

Before she was actively caring for people in a war zone, Collins grew up with the societal expectation of marrying a local boy from her hometown of Miami, Arizona, and being a homemaker for her husband and children.

Neither of her parents had gone to college, but she knew that if she wanted her dream of becoming a nurse to come true, she would need to pursue her degree.

The question then became how.

She needed to work to pay for school, but maintaining a full-time job as a full-time student was a struggle. That’s when a friend from her hometown told her about the opportunities that come with a career in the military.

“Hey, did you know the Air Force is paying for college?” her friend asked.

That was all it took. The Air Force had its newest cadet, and Collins had the opportunity to pursue her dreams.

“Never in a million years had I thought that I would go into the military,” she said. “Education was really important so wherever I went, wherever I was stationed, I would take college classes to ultimately get to the goal of becoming a nurse.”

After graduating with a degree in nursing, Collins worked as a critical care nurse for the Air Force.

By 2003, she had finished her bachelor’s degree in Health Care Services with an Emphasis in Forensic Science and a master’s degree in Business Organizational Management. But a degree in nursing was still on her bucket list.

“I had applied to multiple nursing schools and I didn’t get accepted,” she said. “I then applied for GCU. I found out that they had a fast-track program and I thought, 'You know what? This is right up my alley.'”

She had found her ticket to becoming a nurse, but with it would come a familiar obstacle.

“I actually applied, and they denied me,” she said. “What was funny was that by this time, I had already had multiple deployments under my belt, I had been around the world and I’m like, ‘I’m not taking no for an answer. I know I got this ‘not accepted’ letter, but I’m not taking no for an answer.’”

Collins’ drive landed her in front of the College of Nursing Dean at the time, Dr. Cynthia Russell. One week later, Collins' acceptance letter came in the mail.

Further on into her program, while pregnant with her second daughter, Collins faced another obstacle. Her pregnancy was in danger, and she had to be placed on bed rest.

The midwife told her, "Listen, I know you’re going through nursing school. It is stressing you out to a point that you’re going to hurt your baby. You need to drop out. You cannot go any further, and if I find out you’re back in school, I’m going to admit you into the hospital and you’re not going to be doing anything at all."

She was only four months from graduating and refused to give up. Collins found a loophole to not violate the terms of her bed rest: For the final months of her program, her mother and brother would take turns picking her up from her home and driving her to her classes, in addition to pushing her in a wheelchair on campus. Once in class, her instructors allowed her to participate in the course work from one of the patient beds that students train on.

It was a long journey, but in 2004 Collins graduated with her bachelor’s degree in Nursing.

Collins worked with the 18th Surgeon General Regina Benjamin (left).

“I give credit to GCU,” she said. “Obtaining my nursing degree, just that one small piece into my life has allowed me to do amazing things.”

After graduating, she entered a critical care fellowship at the Mayo Clinic and later returned to the military as a critical care nurse.

In 2009, she was deployed to Afghanistan for seven months.

“To be able to take care of some of the most sick and injured -- coalition forces, American soldiers, Afghanis, a lot of children and even the Taliban … I would always tell people that we’re just ordinary, plain people doing some extraordinary work on a daily basis,” she said. “That’s hard to come home from because what we did really mattered there.”

Once home from deployment, Collins assumed several roles under several Surgeon Generals, including Dr. Regina Benjamin and Vivek Murphy.

Now, Collins is Director of Clinical Health Services for Federal Occupational Health, a nonappropriated agency in the Program Support Center of the Department of Health and Human Services.

As a 15-year Air Force veteran who had firsthand experience in Afghanistan, the news and images coming out of country over the past month have been especially difficult for her.

But what made this latest tragedy in Afghanistan different from others in the past?

While in Afghanistan, Collins made connections with multiple women in Afghanistan.


“I had to really think about that and really do some soul searching, and it’s because I lost hope,” she said. “Hope is such a beautiful thing. Hope is what keeps people going, and even my time at Grand Canyon, it’s the hope that the dean at the time saw something in me that I saw and would give me a chance. That hope that she’s going to help me get to my dream. The hope there (in Afghanistan), when I was there, was seeing the women that can go to school now, the girls who can go to school, women that could actually get jobs and be self-sustainable …”

“To even know that the Taliban has now taken over and are putting in more measure to tighten everything down ... they’re not going to have food. These people are going to starve to death.”

The news of a suicide bombing at the Kabul airport that killed 13 members of the U.S. military made it even harder for Collins to fully process it all.

Some moments over the last month have been harder than others for Collins, but spending time with her family (husband Clinton and daughters Kennedy, Taylor and Reagan), friends and colleagues from the war, in addition to having her counselor on speed dial, has helped her cope.

Reflecting on the positive memories and blessings have improved her mindset.

Collins received the Afghan Campaign Medal.

“I’m in the best place today that I’ve been in the last month,” she said.

If there is one thing she’s taken away from her career and the news of the last month, Collins said, it can be found one of her favorite poems: “I have only just a minute” by Dr. Benjamin E. Mays.

Mays wrote:

“I have only just a minute, / Only sixty seconds in it. / Forced upon me, can’t refuse it. / Didn’t seek it, didn’t choose it. / But it’s up to me / to use it.”

And that’s just what Collins plans to do.

“Every second that we have, we have to make it valuable, and it’s up to you what’s valuable,” she said. “Is it playing a video game? If that makes you happy and that’s valuable and that’s what you choose to do with it, good -- do it but don’t waste it.

“For me personally, I cherish every moment that I have with my friends and loved ones.”

From delights as simple as a good cup of coffee to having the option to take a shower, Collins makes sure to appreciate every minute, because, as Mays so eloquently wrote, “eternity is in it.”

Contact Ashlee Larrison at (602) 639-8488 or [email protected].


Related content:

GCU Today: GCU student to honor brother at 9/11 event

The Washington Post: What we lost in Afghanistan: Readers share their sacrifices from 20 years of war


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