“I really wasn’t afraid. I had that kind of spirit,” Spivey says.
Spivey grew up in Alliance, Alabama, but she always had a craving to see more of the world, help more people and get more education. In fact, her desire for more, bigger and better was so strong that the young Nurse Spivey left behind the world she knew for war zones, where she didn’t know if she would be welcomed, respected or even tolerated by her fellow airmen.
“I just knew there was more than Alliance [Alabama],” Spivey says. Through the Air Force, Spivey got more, bigger, better — and then some. She traveled to places as far away as the Philippines, met people from all over and earned two degrees. “And the more education I got, the more I wanted,” she says.
On a typical day, she might arrive 30 minutes early, then struggle to find a parking spot, walk up nine flights of stairs and spend the next 12 hours on her feet, caring for service personnel in dire straits. She’d insist they remain at ease when they’d try to stand and salute her even in their sickness. Although she was a black woman in a predominantly white, masculine space, Spivey was never shown any less respect than any other officer, she remembers. “They knew from day one,” Spivey clarifies, “that it wasn’t about the color of the skin; it was the rank.”
After training at Wilford Hall, Spivey then went on to serve in the Air Force’s newest capacity: flight nurse. In 1968, the Air Force introduced the C-9A Nightingale, the first plane designed to serve as a hospital in the sky. At this point in her retelling, she holds up a model airplane, identifying the area where a ramp would descend and gurneys would ascend. “It was a really nice, unusual experience,” Spivey says, obviously still impressed by it. “We had special planes that had just been designed. We also had special uniforms. So, we thought we were really …” and she pauses for a second, seemingly looking for a phrase other than “hot stuff.” “We thought we were really good,” she says emphatically, as we share a laugh. “But anyway,” she continues, having regained her seriousness, “it was an honor to serve as a flight nurse on those special planes.”
Although Col. Spivey’s tenure as an Air Force nurse ended some 30-odd years ago, she is still able to recall her experiences, as well as her medical knowledge, in vivid detail. “She still tries to be my nurse sometimes,” says Betty, pointing out that her sister’s work as a nurse didn’t end with her discharge from the Air Force. “If I take medicine,” Betty says, “she takes out her medical book.”
Spivey’s recall is something she works at. “Your brain won’t go to sleep on you if you use it all the time,” she remarks. As someone who loves to take advantage of any and all educational events Brookdale offers, she advises, “Get up! Go out and see what’s going on, and become part of it!”
Decades after her honorable discharge from the Air Force, Spivey’s hometown of Alliance, Alabama, has hung a banner in her honor. But what she is most proud of, she says, is having blazed her own trail. “I’m proud of staying as long as I did. I didn’t personally know of anybody else who had joined the Air Force at the time that I did. It was just something I’d read about and something I wanted to do.”
And now, as the second black female nurse colonel in American history, she has a powerful legacy. When she first moved into her Brookdale community, she shrank from being addressed by her Air Force title. “Just call me Christine,” she said, just as she had told her patients to do during her days of active duty. But just as her patients had done, the Brookdale associates around her insisted, “No, you earned that title — Colonel!”
We at Brookdale take pride in honoring the legacies of our residents daily. To our veterans, we extend our deepest gratitude and appreciation for the sacrifices you have made.
To read more about the amazing veterans residing at Brookdale, check out this profile on John Stratton, a Vietnam war veteran who went from using a wheelchair to walking to competing internationally in athletics.
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