Aubrey Moncrief, a CRNA who lives and works in Maryville, says that being a CRNA is in his blood. “Always has been,” he adds. But his path to his chosen profession was anything but a straight line, taking him halfway around the world to Vietnam where he served as a battlefield medic at age 20 and developed the skills and traits that helped make him the CRNA he is today.
Aubrey’s career path actually began in high school when he worked as an OR tech during surgeries, “scrubbing in and everything” as he puts it. He graduated in 1966 and was drafted into the U.S. Army in 1967 at the height of the Vietnam War.
During basic training, Aubrey tested out of different potential positions — he wanted to be an OR tech and build on his high school experiences.
“They had other plans for me, though,” he said. “They wanted me to be a medic.” As part of the preparation to become a medic, he participated in weapons and survival training. Ultimately, he became an 18 Delta Special Forces combat medic and was assigned to a Green Beret team that undertook top-secret missions.
For his first mission, Aubrey boarded a plane with his team at the Army base he was stationed at in California. It wasn’t until after the plane took off that he learned he was bound for Vietnam. He wouldn’t be stateside again for a year.
Early in 1968, during the Tet Offensive — a series of attacks by the North Vietnamese against five major South Vietnamese cities that marked the beginning of the end of the Vietnam War — Aubrey was stationed at a U.S. base in Quantri. There his team specialized in search-and-rescue missions for downed U.S. pilots. One harrowing experience will always stick with him.
“A North Vietnamese sniper shot one of ours, and we needed to get to him, but we couldn’t because the sniper would have picked us off,” Aubrey said. His Green Beret team had a sharpshooter — a guy who was an expert hunter back home — who took care of the sniper so they could take care of the wounded pilot.
“A few years later, after I graduated nursing school, I was working in the cardiac unit when this drug rep who looks familiar comes in,” recalled Aubrey. “I asked him if he was in ‘Nam, and he says, ‘Yeah.’ I asked him if was shot by a sniper, and he says, ‘Yeah,’ and kind of looked at me. We wound up talking for two hours. He was the only guy I ever cared for in the field who I ran into after the war.”
Aubrey wasn’t even able to talk about his missions in Vietnam until 1976, following a mandatory eight-year period of silence after discharge. His family, including Jan, his high school sweetheart who he married in 1971, thought he was stationed at the California Army base the entire time he was overseas. He was able to send his family letters but could say nothing in them about his actual whereabouts.
After his return to the states, Aubrey earned a physiology degree from Michigan State University in 1973 and an associate degree in nursing from Lansing Community College in Michigan in 1980. It was then that he decided to become a CRNA. He flew to Missouri for an interview with SE Missouri School of Nurse Anesthesia Program Administrator Bill Kirk, CRNA, who had also served in Vietnam. Vietnam vets are a close fraternity, and Aubrey was accepted into the program.
“I have used and drawn on my experience as a medic in Vietnam to be the CRNA I have become,” he said. “Dealing with terrible injuries, life-or-death situations, improvising, creating, responding — all these things were incredibly formative. I developed a sense for patients and their conditions—an ability to assess a situation with my eyes and ears before checking the monitors for confirmation. After providing care to patients in the field in Vietnam, working stateside in sterile ORs with the best equipment and drugs seems easy by comparison.”
After graduating from nurse anesthesia school in 1983, Aubrey went back into the service as a reservist in 1984 and took a commission as an officer. He was stationed in Texas and South Carolina and performed anesthesia in the Middle East. He retired in 2004 as a lieutenant colonel.
In civilian life, Aubrey spent most of his career as a locums CRNA. At one point, he was licensed in 12 states. “Sometimes I would work in a place for four or five years,” he said. “I’d travel back home on weekends, or my wife would travel out to my assignment so we could spend time together.”
A native of Missouri, Aubrey lived and worked in the Show Me State for a number of years before settling down in Tennessee. He was president of the Missouri Association of Nurse Anesthetists in 1997 and was appointed by the governor to serve on the Missouri Board of Nursing where he was president from 2009 to 2012.
Now going on 73, Aubrey and Jan have been in Tennessee for almost five years, and he works three days a week at Blount Memorial Hospital in Maryville. While he claims to be considering retirement, he definitely doesn’t sound too sure about it. Being a CRNA has been everything Aubrey hoped it would be.
“Lots of times we are the invisible providers, but it’s rewarding to be part of a community, to be known and to be recognized for what you do,” said Aubrey. “I’m still doing something valuable here at the end of my career. I feel good about that.”