JOINT BASE SAN ANTONIO-FORT SAM HOUSTON, Texas –
Many famous Americans have answered the call to duty in times when the nation needed them most. Former NFL running back Robert Patrick “Rocky” Bleier was drafted and volunteered for duty in Vietnam. Late Hollywood actor Charles Durning received three Purple Hearts for his actions in World War II. Mixed martial arts fighter Liz Carmouche served three tours in Iraq as a helicopter electrician.
And today, we have U.S. Army Col. April Critelli.
Critelli is one of the thousands of men and women who have served in peacetime and combat, to retire in quiet anonymity, a hero. And when the nation called for healthcare professionals to help fight the COVID-19 pandemic, Critelli came out of retirement and was the first retired reserve volunteer recall officer to be placed on active duty orders and assigned to duty.
“For as long as I can remember I wanted to serve in the military,” said Critelli, a physician assistant at Brooke Army Medical Center at Joint Base San Antonio-Fort Sam Houston. “1982 wasn’t a popular time to join, especially for women, but I just knew that I wanted to serve my country.”
Critelli is a graduate of State University of New York at Buffalo, about 20 miles south of her hometown of Niagara Falls. She was initially commissioned into the Chemical Corps and later received her Master of Physician Assistant Degree from George Washington University, then reassessed into the Army Medical Specialist Corps.
She spent 36 years in the U.S. Army, with time on active duty, in the National Guard and Reserve. She retired in 2018, only to realize she had to jump back into the fray when the novel coronavirus pandemic saw military healthcare personnel deploying to places like her home state to help fight the virus. “When the recall was announced, it (returning to duty) just seemed like the right thing to do,” she explained.
Like many organizations, the Army is built on values. Loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity, and personal courage can be seen as the ingredients that shape the very core of individual Soldiers. So much so, that in the case of Critelli, even retirement didn’t shake that foundation.
“As military healthcare professionals, it is part of our DNA to do all we can to help preserve life,” said Army Brig. Gen. Wendy Harter, BAMC commanding general. “What Col. Critelli did in terms of coming out of retirement to help in any way she could during this deadly pandemic, is the epitome of our Army values and our medical profession, particularly when it comes to selfless service. She is an example of what makes people our nation’s most valuable asset.”
For two years after the tragedy of 9/11, there was a noticeable jump in calls to recruiters and enlistments. To some analysts, it was an indicator that more young Americans felt the need to defend the country against a new kind of threat. Today, the threat requires an existing weapon with specialty training. A weapon that doesn’t have a shelf life.
Critelli was sitting at home watching the global response to the pandemic, wanting to contribute. She looked at contractor positions and temporary jobs with the Veterans Administration. That’s when Human Resources Command sent out an email requesting for healthcare volunteers. After discussing the possibility of a return to military service with her husband and adult children, she replied to HRC.
“I immediately drafted my email response because it just seemed right and I felt proud to be able to serve my country again,” she said. “About a week later, I received a call from HRC asking if I was willing to return to active duty and without hesitation, I said yes.”
No stranger to military moves, Critelli was physically and mentally prepared to take on the task of relocating to BAMC. Once she received orders from HRC, things got moving quickly. She started in-processing virtually. “I was able to complete a lot of paperwork through email prior to reporting,” Critelli explained. “I was then told to self-isolate for 14 days, during which time I found suitable housing. I found everyone I encountered to be very professional and welcoming.”
While at BAMC, Critelli will use her physician assistant skills, working in the Department of Family and Community Medicine. “This week I began screening patients at the McWethy Troop Medical Clinic for COVID-19, and I will fill any other provider gaps as needed,” said Critelli.
“It’s an honor to have Col. Critelli here to provide additional support during this global pandemic,” said Col. Timothy Switaj, chief, Department of Family and Community Medicine. “I applaud her willingness to voluntarily return to active duty and help under these difficult times. Her background and experience will contribute greatly to the DFCM mission, enhancing our ability to care for our beneficiaries during this crisis.”
The Army has a Soldier For Life program and part of the mission statement says "reinforce the Soldier For Life (SFL) mindset throughout the entirety of the Soldier Life Cycle (SLC). “When you join the Army you join a family,” said BAMC Command Sgt. Maj. Thomas Oates.
“When you join Army Medicine from the military, you accept the invitation to become a member of an extended family that places people first. Col. Critelli received a call that her extended family needed her, and being the Soldier for life, she came back with open arms and sleeves rolled up ready to do her job,” Oates added. “Col. Critelli may have retired, but her willingness to don the uniform for her Family, for her Army, for our country, proves beyond doubt that she is a Soldier for life.”
“I have always liked the slogan SFL because there are so many ways to continue serving our forces even after traditional retirement,” Critelli added. “I never thought of it as returning to active duty, but it absolutely fits.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has ushered in public support for medical professionals on the front lines as seen in marketing ads, news stories and social media, recognizing them as heroes. For Soldiers like Critelli, the accolades are appreciated but they see much more work to be done.
“I, like many of our service men and women do not want to be singled out,” she said. “We do what we do for service and love of our country,” Critelli said this unusual, invisible enemy can strike and hurt the most vulnerable. Medical professionals are not the only ones at risk she added. First responders and personnel providing essential services selflessly put themselves at risk. “I thank them and call them heroes.”
"Like their civilian counterparts, Army healthcare providers are heroes at the tip of the spear, bravely fighting an unseen enemy," said U.S. Army Chief of Staff Gen. James McConville. "When the Nation confronts a challenge, our Soldiers move to the sound of the guns. That's what our retired healthcare specialists like Col. Critelli are volunteering to do."