Helen Perry was working her way through college classes with an eye toward teaching grade school when a friend put her in touch with a young Army soldier who needed a pen pal while deployed to Iraq.
Though she routinely read his letters about life in a war zone, Perry had little interest in the military. Her dad was an Army veteran who’d served in Vietnam, and she told him long before that she’d “never” join the military.
But after a call from that pen pal, who was wounded and evacuated for care in Landstuhl, Germany, Perry learned how few nurses the Army had, and she started considering what could be done to help.
Despite having only a few classes left to complete her teaching degree, Perry switched to nursing and joined the Army ROTC program at University of Arkansas in 2008. She commissioned in 2011.
After her ceremony, her dad gave her a cake with the words “I will never join the Army” spelled out – so she could eat her words. And the soldier pen pal friend, Sgt. 1st Class Stephen Cottrell, attended her commissioning and was the first soldier to render a salute to the young officer.
Cottrell credited Perry with being a good friend and helping him get past the Iraq deployment in which he suffered some tough injuries. He’s now working as an observer trainer coach for the Army National Guard in Indiana.
Perry, however, went on to help countless soldiers and service members over the next few years. Yet she craved more, often volunteering for extra duties and asking, again and again, to deploy overseas.
But it’s her time post-uniform that would thrust her into the most extreme situations where she felt she could make an impact.
After initial training, Perry was hoping for an assignment working in trauma — some of the most demanding nursing work available in the Army. She kept her fingers crossed and let it be known that she was ready for a combat deployment.
But, as is often the case, the Army had other plans.
Instead, Perry was assigned to work as an inpatient surgical nurse, helping wounded service members recover at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center. Always going above and beyond however, she volunteered as much as she was needed, from mother and infant care to the emergency room.
When Perry had off time, which is typically cherished by long-shift laboring medical staff, she instead offered to serve on medical evacuation teams for tWalter Reed as part of a small crew with basic equipment and medicine that kept patients stable for the one to two hour commute from Joint Base Andrews, Maryland, to WRNMMC.
“Sometimes we’d get all the notice in the world, ‘the flight is tomorrow at 5 p.m.,’” she said. “Sometimes it would be like, ‘the flight is now landing in an hour and the guy is crashing; be ready to resuscitate en route.’”
Though that work gave her ways to help troops coming home wounded from combat zones, it was not the front line assignment she craved.
At that time, her Marine husband Matt was deployed in Afghanistan, so the hours kept her busy, she said. And then Perry got orders for Winn Army Community Hospital at Fort Stewart, Georgia.
That’s where she met Sgt. Mike Street. The pair worked the night shift, keeping each other laughing through hard times dealing with patients experiencing drug overdoses, heart attacks and risky medical transfers. Their job was to keep patients stable before they were brought to other hospitals.
“She was an outstanding nurse,” Street said. “I definitely could tell she knew what she was doing.”
And she was not afraid to tell higher-ranking officers when they were wrong, Street added.
“There was a fine line doing that job in the military,” Street said. “She just happened to be the one who was smart enough to catch something like that.”
While the work was important, Perry noted that she was still not in the trenches the way she’d hoped.
“I volunteered for every chance to get a deployment, I just never got one,” she said.
While she was working Winn Army Community Hospital, her husband faced a series of medical issues, which ultimately led to his early retirement from the Corps.
Perry struggled trying to get an assignment that would allow for her to work, and for her husband to receive the care he needed. It forced Perry to end her service on active duty and move to the Army Reserve.
But she immediately began looking elsewhere for ways to help.
Around the same time, the crisis in Syria was escalating and ISIS atrocities had mounted in Iraq. She watched news footage of children being pulled from rubble piles, and an internal call echoed in Perry again and again, “someone needs to help them.”
But she knew that no one was coming to help.
“I’m trained, I’m capable,” she thought.
So Perry decided to submit her credentials to a then-developing veteran-run crisis response group: Global Response Management. While on a field exercise in Georgia, she got a call from the team, asking if she’d be able to head to Mosul, Iraq.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever tried to go to a war zone without the Army when you’re still in the Army,” she said. “They don’t like that.”
But two weeks after she finished her annual reserve exercise, she flew to Erbil, Iraq, and started making trips into Mosul over the following three weeks.
That was in September 2017.
The Mosul mission lasted nine months in total for GRM, during which the organization helped launch their efforts and led to other assistance missions, but it was volunteer-driven, not full-time work. Perry, as a result, went on doing civilian nursing jobs.
In 2018, she traveled again with GRM to Bangladesh, seeing 100 or more patients a day, in sweltering heat, providing some of the only medical care available to tens of thousands of refugees.
Perry and a team also went to the Bahamas in the wake of Hurricane Dorian in late 2019. They went into zones where officials said there were no people, but they were some of the first responders to come across dozens of survivors found weeks after the storm.
The crew spent three weeks on the ground, sometimes teaming up with canine units to find people trapped in rubble. More often than not, they found only bodies.
But it was there she learned of the mounting refugee crisis and a desolate camp on the Mexico side of the U.S. border.
The U.S. government previously allowed asylum seekers to remain in the United States while their cases were reviewed. But policy changes now require those individuals to stay in Mexico while they await decisions on their statuses.
Fresh off of the Bahamas trip, she landed in Matamoros, Mexico, and made connections with a group providing meals to thousands of asylum seekers in the growing camp. Armed with nothing but a basic aid bag filled with over the counter medication, the needs of the refugees far surpassed what she could provide by herself.
“People literally swarmed me,” Perry said. “I saw terrible, terrible things. Kids who had pink eye from bathing in the river. A little baby, 7 months old, who had such bad ringworm under her armpit, with such scarring, the contraction was causing her to lose mobility in her arm.”
Though not labeled a combat zone, Perry noted that what she saw at the border wasn’t far from being one. She estimated more than 750 people living in 250 three-person camping tents.
It’s a drug cartel-controlled area, so few aid organizations are coming to help, she added, saying, “This is a need that’s only going to get worse."
Late last year, she went from volunteer nurse to operations manager for GRM and has since taken over as executive director of the nonprofit, veteran-run group. Between October and late January, she has made at least 10 multi-day trips to the camp alone, while others filled in shifts between.
Regarding the situation at the border, Perry held a board meeting with GRM, and the members agreed to set up a more permanent station at the camp. What started with two canopy popup tents has now grown into a mobile medical unit with a pharmacy, obstetrics and gynecological office and safe children’s play space.
The organization also sent down water purifying systems. GRM rotates five to seven volunteers a week to the location, and the staff has treated at least 3,000 patients for everything from pink eye and pneumonia to influenza and appendicitis.
The group is now looking to see what is needed on the other end of Mexico, at its Guatemalan border, where reports show that thousands fleeing violence are trapped in similar types of camps or groupings.
“We need funding. We need partners. We need volunteers. We need people who are willing to step up and make a difference,” she said.
And, Perry noted that veterans are both uniquely suited to that type of work and looking for ways to continue serving.
The Army never gave her the deployment she wanted, but it did give Perry the skills and guiding precepts that brought her to the front lines as a civilian.
“When I was first going into the Army I had this one officer, a captain, giving us this lecture," Perry told Army Times, "[she said], ’It’s not my job does not apply to what we do.’”
Todd South has written about crime, courts, government and the military for multiple publications since 2004 and was named a 2014 Pulitzer finalist for a co-written project on witness intimidation. Todd is a Marine veteran of the Iraq War.