Find Your Passion: Military Nurse Returns from Afghanistan to Pick Up Doctorate

Dara WarrenWhen Dara Warren walks across the stage at UA's commencement Aug. 7, the twice-deployed Air Force captain will have completed an almost seven-year personal mission that took her to Iraq, Afghanistan, Japan, Germany and back home.

By Michael Washington

Dara Warren is cautious and thoughtful when reflecting upon the circumstances under which she earned her master’s and doctoral degrees from The University of Alabama. When the twice-deployed Air Force captain walks across the stage at UA’s commencement Aug. 7, she will have completed an almost seven-year personal mission that took her to Iraq, Afghanistan, Japan, Germany and back home.

Completing coursework for a master of science in nursing and a doctorate in nursing practice has its own challenges, and combining those with the requirements of a military nurse in an intensive care unit certainly doesn’t make it any easier. Yet, she took a decidedly practical approach to her studies.

“Being overseas didn’t really make my [course]work any more difficult,” says Warren. “Without the little distractions during deployment, you pretty much go to work, do your coursework, and work out.”

Dara WarrenWarren's (right) love of traveling was one of the key factors in her decision to join the military. She poses in front of the Eiffel Tower with a friend.

Her journey to nursing and military service began when she was a middle-schooler fixated on caring for babies as a nurse. Following home schooling, Warren earned her first degree in nursing and got her first exposure to nursing in a neonatal intensive care unit.

“I fell in love with the job and have been a NICU nurse since then, “ says Warren.

After graduating from UA with a bachelor of science in nursing, Warren explored her options.

“I love to travel, and had prior-service friends who encouraged me to look at military nursing,” Warren recalls of her decision-making process. “I liked the opportunities the military offered, both career and education, and commissioned as a First Lieutenant in 2003. My initial commitment was four years, and I’ve been in almost seven years now.”

Warren views her military service in both Operation Iraqi Freedom in Iraq and Operation Enduring Freedom in Afghanistan as life-altering “in every way” and an experience that exposed her to leadership and management opportunities usually unavailable to civilian nurses. In fact, many of her clinical requirements for both of her graduate degrees were already a part of the job. But Warren sees her service as more than a learning experience.

“I’ve been deployed twice and been given the opportunity to take care of our nation’s heroes firsthand, but I also feel that when at home station [in Japan and Germany] taking care of neonates I’m still indirectly supporting those who protect our freedom by taking care of their most vulnerable family member.”

Caring for our nation’s heroes was the biggest challenge for Warren. While working in intensive care units, she saw the price of war.

Dara WarrenWarren with a member of the Department of Defense working dog program.

“The toughest part?” Warren asked, in response to a question. “What a person has to see and deal with. I only see the guys coming back injured. You can’t help but become intimately acquainted with the cost of freedom.”

Warren also received a fair share of support. She credits her seeking a doctoral degree and graduation to Drs. Linda Dunn and Dr. Marietta Stanton, UA nursing professors, who allowed her a flexible schedule for completing her coursework during deployment, as well as mentoring from Stanton, herself a former service member. “Without the two of them,” Warren says there was no way she would be graduating. Warren looks forward to being close to her family and friends after almost five years away from home. As Dr. Warren, she plans to work with Stanton on research involving nurse veterans as well as to encourage her fellow nurses to continue their education.

“One of my favorite things to do is to encourage my fellow nurses and technicians in furthering their education. I feel like completing my degrees in the manner that I have gives me a lot of credibility with my peers. If I can do it, anyone can.”

That same humility comes forth when Warren contemplates the gravity of completing post-secondary education entirely away from a college campus.

“This is part of life,” she says. “I don’t think my circumstances are really that remarkable.”

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This story is part of the Find Your Passion feature section of the UA home page. For more stories, please visit Find Your Passion or Crimson Spotlight. To learn more about how you can find your passion at The University of Alabama, please visit UA Undergraduate Admissions.