VA Sunshine Healthcare Network
From the Frontlines to Life-changing VA Support
TAMPA, Fla. - At just 16 years old, U.S. Army Veteran and VA nurse Nicole Leger gave birth to a beautiful baby girl. She was filled with joy but had some difficult decisions to make.
“It has always been one of my insecurities, but I did become a mother at the age of 16,” said Leger. “I graduated early my senior year of high school and could no longer attend Dartmouth, where I had been accepted…you can’t bring a baby to college, so the Army was my option to start a life for us.”
At 17, she entered the military from Portland, Maine, and was quickly ushered off to Fort Jackson, S.C. for both basic training and advanced individual training. Her first duty station was Fort Drum, N.Y., where she was assigned to the 10th Mountain Division – one of the most combat-deployed divisions during the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Soon thereafter, in 2008, she deployed to Afghanistan as a human resources specialist with the 3rd Special Troops Battalion, 3rd Brigade Combat Team, 10th Mountain Division. Instead of working personnel actions, however, she was given the opportunity to serve in another capacity.
“I was retrained when we deployed to essentially be a medic and worked a lot with them,” she said. “It kind of gave me the foundation of nursing and led me to the path that ultimately became my career after the military.”
Her time in Afghanistan was physically and emotionally challenging. She missed her daughter deeply, and she was routinely exposed to the horrors of war.
“I saw so much while working with the medics,” she explained. “You really don’t have time to think or process anything…you can only react.”
She gave detailed examples of responding to severely injured and deceased war casualties regularly during her time in combat. Leger also described a time when her vehicle was hit by an improvised explosive device and rolled over. Luckily, she walked away with only bumps and bruises.
“We were all in it together dealing with it the best way we could…it was a family,” Leger said.
She was also frequently exposed to toxic burn pits which caused a quick onset of breathing and skin disorders and migraine headaches that she continues to battle today, nearly 15 years later.
“We could see them, we were around them, we could throw things into them…we even had burn pit duty, Leger added”
The Return Home & Recovery
After a year in combat, she returned home carrying the burden of mental and physical injuries. To add to her struggles, her daughter, who turned four years old while she was deployed, didn’t recognize her own mother.
“It was really heartbreaking,” Leger recalled. “It was all a lot for me to process; I just knew I never wanted to do that to her again.”
Shortly after returning from Afghanistan, Leger was transferred to an assignment in Washington, D.C. with the Defense Information Systems Agency and then was later discharged from the Army for medical reasons.
Like so many Veterans who experience war, Leger started having nightmares, extreme levels of agitation, and began isolating herself. She felt as though she was losing control and described herself as a “bomb ready to go off.”
“I was in a pretty dark place for a while,” she said. “I didn’t feel right…I felt like a loose cannon. I knew I needed help.”
With some encouragement from family, she sought mental health treatment from VA. After a year or two of therapy, she finally felt good enough to pursue nursing – a passion she discovered while at war.
Leger, now a native of Tampa, graduated from nursing school in 2014. She was quickly hired as an ICU nurse at a local hospital and then transitioned to work for the Florida Department of Health.
In 2019 she was hired by VA at the James A. Haley Veterans’ Hospital, and last year, she became part of the VISN 8 Clinical Contact Center. Also, known as VA Health Connect, the center provides 24/7/365 virtual urgent care services to Veterans in Florida, South Georgia, Puerto Rico, and the U.S. Virgin Islands.
“Working for the VA has really given me a sense of purpose,” Leger explained. “I feel very connected to Veterans because I am one. I hear many of them say the same things I did when I left the service…we have similar experiences. It’s a special relationship because I’ve walked in those shoes.”
Benefiting from the PACT Act
Like hundreds of thousands of other Veterans who spent time in Iraq and Afghanistan, Leger’s health problems related to burn pit exposure worsened over time, and she wanted answers.
In 2022, the President signed The Sergeant First Class (SFC) Heath Robinson Honoring our Promise to Address Comprehensive Toxics (PACT) Act into law – perhaps the largest health care and benefit expansion in VA history.
Among other things, the PACT Act and extended eligibility for VA health care for Veterans of the Vietnam, Gulf War, and post-9/11 eras with toxic exposures, added more than 20 benefit-eligible, presumptive health conditions related to those exposures.
It also required VA to provide toxic exposure screenings and related care to every Veteran enrolled in VA health care. As of mid-July, VA had screened more than four million Veterans for toxic exposures, 1.7 million of which expressing at least one exposure concern.
“I feel like a lot of those unknowns we had…the PACT Act provides a lot of those answers,” Leger said. “It helps us understand why we are experiencing what we are experiencing and why we have these medical issues.”
As an informed patient and VA employee, Leger worked with a local Veteran service officer to learn more about the PACT Act. She then pursued a toxic exposure screening and was later awarded service-connected compensation for several conditions including migraines, sinusitis, rhinitis, and sleep apnea.
“The VA has changed my life for the better,” she said. “I am so happy that I took that first step and reached out for help. They provided a platform that I could navigate on my own timeline, and I’m not just a number in VA’s eyes…I am Nicole, a Veteran, a mom, a nurse. I am so thankful for that.”