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Karen O’Connell, PhD, RN, FNP-BC, NEA-BC, is an associate professor in the Northern Kentucky University School of Nursing. She completed her PhD in Nursing Science from Uniformed Services University in 2012. O’Connell is now working toward a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner degree at the University of Cincinnati because of her passion for veteran care. This passion comes naturally to O’Connell, who served as an Air Force Nurse Corps Officer for 25 years. 

O’Connell has many memories from her time in the Air Force. She worked as a Level 1 Trauma Emergency Room nurse in San Antonio. This is where she learned about caring for emergency & trauma patients. During her career, she also experienced flying aeromedical evacuation missions around Europe, helping new nurses transition into the Air Force, caring for the wounded while she was deployed to the trauma Emergency Department in Balad, Iraq, and serving as the Research Director for a medical center. Orienting and teaching new nurses was one of the highlights of her career along with teaching life support classes and assisting others with research projects. During her last military assignment, she completed nurse educator certificate classes and taught as a part-time faculty member. This is where she discovered how much she enjoyed teaching.

After retiring from the service, O’Connell pursued a career in academia and made the decision to pursue a psychiatric mental health nurse practitioner (PMHNP) degree. In addition, O’Connell decided to take this career path because of the sheer number of veterans who die by suicide. “I was appalled,” reflects O’Connell. After discovering that there were not enough mental health providers available to assist these veterans, she decided she had to do something to help. “These brave men and women are my heroes and they deserve nothing but respect and gratitude for what they have sacrificed. I also feel that, as a veteran, they may be more comfortable working with me.”

O’Connell was motivated by her mother to pursue a path in nursing, as she was a nurse herself. Long term, she wants to treat veterans with mental health conditions and those who just need a bit of guidance or coaching. She wants to start support groups for veterans. “These men and women experience a level of friendship in the service that is unlike anything in the civilian world. I would like to create a safe space for them to connect and heal together.”

When asked what advice she would give to a future nurse who wants to pursue higher education or Air Force nursing, O’Connell provided an honest and encouraging response. “I would say do it!  And take every opportunity that is offered to you.”