Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Maria Ortiz remembered

Everybody at Kirk U.S. Army Health Clinic knew Capt. Maria Ortiz.

She was the head nurse with the 1,000-watt smile and the ability to instantly calm even the most distressed patients at the clinic on Aberdeen Proving Ground, an Army installation in Maryland.

But the 40-year-old Pennsauken native told co-workers last year that while she enjoyed caring for sick soldiers in America, she was volunteering for duty in Iraq because she felt drawn to troops wounded in combat.

Ortiz was killed Tuesday by a mortar round that landed in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone, the Department of Defense announced yesterday.

"If there was a jewel to the clinic, she was the jewel," said Renee Smith, a former co-worker. "But she told us she needed to go to Iraq. She told us: 'I want to save someone's life.'"

Ortiz was the 79th service member and third woman with ties to New Jersey to die in Iraq. The Department of Defense casualty database indicates Ortiz is the first female nurse to die in the conflict.

Although the Pentagon listed Ortiz's hometown as Bayamon, Puerto Rico, Army officials in Maryland said their records showed she was born in Pennsauken.

A man who identified himself as Ortiz's brother-in-law confirmed she was born in New Jersey. He said the soldier's sister was acting as the family spokesperson. The sister didn't respond to a message left on her cell phone last night.

While in Iraq, Ortiz often stayed in touch with former colleagues by e-mail. Wanda Schuler, a Kirk colleague, said Ortiz arranged for boxes of Christmas decorations to be sent from Maryland to the sur gical hospital where she worked.

"She said she wanted to make it as cheery as possible on her ward," Schuler said. "She was really proud of the fact she was over there taking care of our soldiers, trying to make the situation they were going through a little easier."

Schuler said she sent Ortiz many care packages and always noticed that when the deployed nurse would thank her, she'd realized she'd given away most of what was sent.

"She shared everything," Schuler said. "She was just one of those people who wanted to touch other people."

Ortiz was 24 when she joined the Army. She served eight years as an enlisted soldier before be coming an officer in 1999 after receiving her nursing degree from the University of Puerto Rico. Five years later, she received a master's degree in quality management from the Massachusetts National Graduate School.

She had also been stationed in Puerto Rico and at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, D.C.

Ortiz was home from Iraq on a two-week leave at the beginning of the summer and made it a point to stop by the Aberdeen clinic.

"It was so wonderful to see her smile again," Smith said. "We are going to miss her terribly."

From the New Jersey Ledger

Related Link:
Maria I. Ortiz dies 'of wounds suffered from enemy indirect fire'