Coraopolis, Pa. --
At the age of 18, it’s extremely difficult to figure out what you want to do professionally. Most people finish high school and just move on to some form of additional education. That’s exactly what Heather Edsall did. She graduated from Gateway School District in 1998 and went on to pursue a degree in Dental Hygiene. Her studies took her out to Montana where she continued her pursuit of the degree at Montana State University. Unfortunately, in 2001, the school consolidated its hygiene program forcing her into relocating to another campus. She needed a new plan. She opted to join the Air Force because of the tuition assistance program and the Montgomery G.I. bill. After signing her service obligation, career field choice and receiving her medical qualification, she traveled to Lackland Air Force Base to attend basic training in August 2001, completely unaware the entire world would change in just a few short weeks from 9/11.
For the first time in 60 years, a war was brought to our doorstep. In order to speed up the process of generating quality Airmen, the records of trainees were reviewed and if any higher educational background existed, those trainees would be tested accordingly. If they passed the career field test, they were reassigned. Fostering the next generation of Airmen quickly was of the utmost importance.
Originally, Edsall enlisted to be a precision measurement equipment laboratory specialist, but this was not to be. The Air Force found her education records and tested her against the Dental Technician career field. By early October 2001, Edsall had become an Airman, been reassigned as a Dental Technician and was on a flight to Yakota Air Base, Japan.
Airman Edsall served her three-year overseas tour before moving to Dover AFB, Delaware. At Dover, she would serve on a mission that changed her life.
Dover AFB is home to the Air Force Mortuary. This is where all of America’s fallen heroes return to the United States before being reunited with their families.
Airmen from different career fields help fill the needs of the Air Force Mortuary to ensure service members are received with dignity and honor.
“It was kind of crazy, I could be cleaning teeth one minute, then the next thing you know they’re saying, hey, you’re heading to the morgue later today,” said 1st Lt. Heather Edsall.
Initially, Edsall did not believe working in the morgue was for her, but then she met Chaplain David Sparks. Chaplain Sparks was the senior port mortuary chaplain at the Air Force Mortuary.
“Just when I felt this was not for me, he started talking about us, doing things to better this process for the families and us, doing things to uphold the respect for these people of our nation. I was just overcome with this the notion of being a part of something amazing,” said Edsall.
The experiences she encountered while assigned to Dover would go on to shape Edsall’s life in a new direction.
Edsall now wanted to save people. So, she joined the Pennsylvania Air National Guard at the 171st Air Refueling Wing. She completed a nursing degree, commissioned and was put in charge of the Self Aid Buddy Care program.
When the SABC program changed to the Tactical Combat Casualty Care training to ensure all U.S. personnel were trained to the same standard in battlefield trauma care without any variations, Edsall knew she needed help in implementing the new program. She attended a training course so that she could be the subject matter expert for the installation. When she returned, she encountered her next obstacle.
She did not have the equipment to create an impactful training course for the 1,200 plus Airmen at the 171st, but what she did have was an abundance of support. She and her commanding officer developed a plan to use all expired medical supplies for training purposes in the TCCC program.
As the 171st TCCC program continued to grow, word spread about Edsall’s innovation and success. Edsall has traveled to nearby installations in both New York and New Jersey not only to improve her abilities to educate but to help them push their TCCC programs further along.
The 171st is well on its way to meeting the requirement of 100% trained by April 2023 because of Edsall’s hard work, which is in part a dedication to her work at Dover.
“It’s not something you dream of,” said Edsall, “but it is something profound.”