Beth Sumner Takes Nursing to New Heights

Thursday, November 11, 2021

Over her 25 years in the U.S. Air Force, Col. Beth Sumner ’95 has seen the world, serving her country on every continent but Australia and Antarctica and racking up a mountain of frequent flyer miles. It’s all thanks to a Viterbo career fair she attended as a junior nursing major.

Col. Beth Sumner's Air Force career has taken her all over the world, including to the top of Japan's Mount Fuji.
Col. Beth Sumner's Air Force career has taken her all over the world, including to the top of Japan's Mount Fuji.

Growing up on a dairy farm near River Falls, Sumner’s excursions off the farm were rare and treasured. “A vacation for my family was a long weekend,” she said by phone from Virginia, where she serves as chief of nursing at Langley Air Force Base. “I really wanted to travel. That was a big thing for me.”

Sumner considered going to college close to home at the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, but a friend of her mother advised she should check out Viterbo if she wanted to become a nurse. Sumner and her grandmother visited numerous colleges, and Viterbo stood out.

“The dean of the nursing school talked to me during my Viterbo tour. I didn’t really know what a dean did, but I knew they were important. I was impressed that she would take the time to talk with me, and I loved the campus,” Sumner said. “The dean emphasized Viterbo was more personal, that the professors would know who you were. And that was certainly true.”

The camaraderie among nursing students made her feel at home at Viterbo. “We had a very strong little community where we spent most of our time together, in school and out of school,” Sumner said.

As Sumner approached graduation, she faced a tough job market. It was a time, she said, when few nurses got hired right out of college. So when she talked with an Air Force recruiter who promised her a job in service of her country, advanced training, and a chance to travel, she was convinced.

Beth Sumner flight nurse

In her Air Force training, she discovered she had gotten a superior education at Viterbo. The emphasis on clinical experience and the chance to take nursing classes earlier at Viterbo gave her an advantage in the Air Force, she said.

When she joined the Air Force, Sumner thought she’d stay for four years and then return to civilian life and work at a big-city hospital. In time, though, she started to focus on “the big picture.” More than five years into her service, stationed in northern Italy near Venice, “the final thing” happened that convinced her that the Air Force was her long-term home: the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

By that time she had specialized in flight medicine, outfitting military aircraft to serve as flying hospital rooms and then attending to patients in flight as they are transported to a hospital where they can get terrestrial treatment. This specialty took her all over the world.

She served in Africa, where she discovered just how large that continent is. Flying a patient from South Africa to Qatar, she said, took three days. “The continent is so huge it makes it logistically hard to get people out of Africa,” she said.

She also served in four combat deployments, including Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom. She was in Iraq in spring 2004 when there was fierce fighting in Fallujah and Ramadi. “We just flew like crazy that spring. It was like the wild west,” she said. “It wasn’t unusual that they’d shoot rockets at us, but you’re too busy to think about it at the time.”

The batallion aid stations where wounded would be taken first before medical evacuation flights were overrun. “We were taking patients right off the field and putting them on planes,” Sumner said.

Sumner recalled one mission in Iraq when they prepared the aircraft for the 35 patients they were told to expect. When they arrived the number of patients had more than doubled, but quick thinking and resourcefulness made it work. “In theater, everything they taught me about how air evac was going to be was not the way it was,” she said. “It was so cutting edge, what we were doing.”

Beth Sumner is pictured with a friend and fellow Air Force colonel.
Sumner is pictured with a friend and fellow Air Force colonel.

Over the years, Sumner got so good at aeromedical evacuation that she was sent to Colombia to help that country’s air force develop its air evac program. And she climbed the rank ladder and gained more responsibility at each rung, assuming increasingly difficult leadership roles.

A colonel since April 2019, Sumner’s duty station prior to moving to Langley was as commander of the 18th Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron at Kadena Air Base in Okinawa, Japan. She had about 120 people under her command, with a mission to provide aeromedical evacuation throughout the Pacific Theater.

That mission got especially challenging in March 2020 when COVID-19 changed everything. Under pandemic protocol, every time a flight crew under her command flew an air evac mission, they had to go into quarantine for two weeks. Ensuring that she always had adequate personnel available at a moment’s notice was a logistical puzzle of epic proportions.

“We really had to scramble to keep the squadron operational,” she said.

Col. Beth Sumner

Looking back, she’s sure she made the right decision based on that Viterbo career fair encounter. “I like what I do. In general, I’ve had a really good time. You make great friends in the military,” said Sumner, who has learned the local cooking skills from wherever she’s been stationed and has become a wine and beer connoisseur. For many years she was a long-distance runner, including marathons, but has switched to cycling to save wear and tear on the knees.

She also has a passion for scuba diving and can easily envision herself working as a divemaster after she retires from the Air Force.

Earlier this year, Sumner took on a new duty, although she considers it more of an honor. She was selected to serve on the Viterbo Board of Trustees, and she didn’t hesitate when she was asked to join.

“I saw it as a chance to give back,” she said, adding that she was “quite impressed with the caliber of the people on the Board of Trustees.”


Beth Sumner in Sapporo, Japan