Nurse Veronica Callahan wipes the sleep from her eyes as the sun pours through her kitchen window on this quiet New Jersey morning. She reaches for a cereal bowl, news radio blaring in the background. A local solider has been killed in Iraq.
As Veronica looks for a spoon, the reporter is drowned out by a menacing noise. It's a chopper. Stunned, Veronica moves toward the window and is gunned down in rapid fire. She looks down as bullets rip through her chest...and is snapped awake by her mother's voice. It was just another nightmare.
Meet the lead character of NBC's new nursing drama, Mercy. Veronica, played by Taylor Schilling, is doing her best to adjust to life at a civilian hospital after serving as a combat nurse in Iraq. On the home front, Veronica must also decide whether to stay married to a man who's desperately trying to understand the person she's become—or reconnect with a combat doctor who's the only one who knows what she's seen.
Schilling says she wants her portrayal of Veronica to be honest and respectful. "These men and women are coming home on a daily basis, and they're dealing with the issues that Veronica is dealing with, so it's incredibly relevant," she says. "All I can do is pay homage to the men and women who are serving right now."
Women like Army Capt. Rebecca Christensen. Capt. Christensen says she saw "the worst of the worst" in her year as an intensive care nurse at Baghdad's 10th Combat Hospital—Saddam Hussein's old hospital. "We were the biggest Army hospital in that area of Baghdad. Most everybody would come to us first," she says. "I will never see that kind of combat, that kind of trauma again." Though she was stationed in the most fortified area of the country, Green Zone living was never easy, and she feared for her life on more than one occasion.
In October 2006, a ticket home to safety and family awaited Capt. Christensen—and she was terrified. "On the plane back, my friend pretty much had to knock me out," she says. "I had really bad feelings that I had changed a lot and my family would look at me different. I was nervous that my fiancé would say, 'I don't want to be with you anymore.'"
While much of Veronica's fictional story has yet to be written, Capt. Christensen is living her happy ending. Married in August 2008, the 28-year-old is now a reservist working in intensive care at a civilian hospital. "My thoughts about my life and the world have changed, but I myself have not," she says. "I do have friends and colleagues that have changed for the worse. They showed signs of PTSD (post-traumatic stress disorder), so some of them are seeking treatment for that. Some of them got on drugs to cope, so it's been sad to hear that."
Schilling has delved into countless books and documentaries to prepare for the role, but her correspondence with a combat nurse has been her biggest inspiration. "She said, in practice, she wouldn't fire her gun because neither she nor her patient were in direct danger. That sort of sums up to me in an interesting way that you go there to do your job, but you don't want to add to the violence," she says. "I think being a healer in a war zone is a really interesting dichotomy and the people that do it are remarkable."
What many back home don't realize is that being a healer in a war zone means caring for everyone. Capt. Christensen says that includes insurgents. "In the hospital, we had a false sense of security because sometimes we thought that maybe they wouldn't try to bomb their own people. That didn't work; they still tried," she says. "It does get challenging. The first patient you take care of that is not a good guy? You kind of have that in the back of your head. After you take care of so many, you kind of forget and do what you have to do."
American nurses are also helping heal Iraq itself. Col. Christine Rem, 59, has been a nurse since she was 17. In October 2007, she was deployed as part of a small State Department team to help the people of Ramadi rise from the devastation of war. Col. Rem acted as a consultant in health, education and women's affairs.
When Col. Rem arrived, she found the city's medical care in crisis. Seventy percent of physicians had fled the country, and cultural issues complicated the shortage. "Nurses are predominantly male in Iraq. It's not looked upon favorably for a woman to care for a man or to be working at night or traveling around in an unstable environment," she says. "Many of the males in Iraq had been recruited into the Iraqi Police or the Iraqi Army to help the government and provide security, so it left very few left over."
Because the 60-mile trip to Baghdad was dangerous, medical supplies were low. Hospital conditions were shocking, and lines were long. "There was only electricity one hour a day. There was no running water; there was no sewer," she says. "The Iraqis were doing the best job they possibly could under the circumstances."
Col. Rem got to work. She wrote for—and received—grants for supplies as well as living stipends for men studying nursing and teaching.
She also helped instill confidence in a shaken staff. With the Army's assistance, Col. Rem helped local nurses gain the confidence to travel the dangerous roads to Baghdad. Despite facing gunfire on their first trip, Col. Rem says they completed three successful runs while she was there. "I was very proud of those nurses," she says. "This work is still going on. I just started it."
Col. Rem's efforts earned her the Bronze Star, but she says working with the Ramadi people was reward enough. "It's like Horton Hears a Who. You learn a person's a person no matter how small, and you learn that human beings are all alike. We all have the same basic issues, needs, wants, desires," she says. "Once you've been there, you don't forget these people."
Like Col. Rem, Capt. Christensen says her experience was unforgettable. "The things I saw were horrible. The injuries were the worst you could possibly imagine, but the experience and the things I was able to see was rewarding. And I don't think a lot of people realize that," she says. "I was very honored to be there for the soldiers."