Health care and courage: Clemson School of Nursing pioneer became highest-ranking female service member in Afghanistan
Elizabeth “Libby” Steadman didn’t set out to break new ground for women, serve her country in two wars or be enshrined in a museum in Washington, D.C., but most people who lead extraordinary lives don’t plan to do so. Making a significant impact often comes naturally.
Steadman grew up in the mid-1950s and ’60s amid peach, corn and cattle farms in Moore, South Carolina — what was then a very rural community just south of Spartanburg and east of Greenville. Her father, Bernard, built houses. Her mother, Mary, was a homemaker and part-time substitute schoolteacher. It was an archetypal childhood for a young American girl before the revival of feminism in the late 1960s when young women in America had limited paths in life. It was a time when most young girls in the Upstate were encouraged to be either teachers or nurses.
Steadman leaned toward nursing from a very young age, an instinct that eventually led her to groundbreaking heights as a health care worker and soldier.
The journey began when she was a clarinet player for the Dorman High School band and visited Clemson University during a “band day,” when high school bands from all over South Carolina were invited to come watch a Clemson Tigers football game. The experience was transformative for her. She decided that day she was going to become a Tiger.
When Clemson added a nursing program to its roster in 1965, she focused her sights on it. In 1966, she joined the second-ever nursing class at Clemson.
“Most of the students were local,” Steadman said by phone from her home in the ACE Basin in Colleton County. “There was one girl from Connecticut and one from Georgia, but it was primarily local girls and that was probably the attraction for all of us then.”
It was the first year Clemson had women’s residence halls on campus. She remembers seeing her fellow students in the Reserve Officer’s Training Corps practicing drill and ceremony on Bowman Field as she walked to and from class. Among them were several groups of women.
“I remember specifically seeing groups of women wearing Air Force uniforms,” she recalled. “They were called the Angel Flyers, and they functioned as hostesses for the men’s honorary Air Force society. I thought they were the real thing at the time. They would be out on the parade grounds in their uniforms while we were having class, and I was always kind of envious. I aspired to be like them.”
At the time, the Vietnam War was making headlines almost every day. Steadman would watch the female cadets in their crisp uniforms marching in neat rows across the grass and feel a sharp desire to serve; but she didn’t want to put her parents through the stress of their only child going to Vietnam, so she resisted enlisting.
“Of course, 20 years later I put them through two wars when they were much older,” she said with a wry laugh. “I think I spent much of my life doing penance for not going to Vietnam.”
Steadman earned her associate’s degree in nursing in 1968 and went to work in Spartanburg for three years, then for the Medical University of South Carolina in Charleston, where she spent five years in the intensive care unit while working to earn a bachelor’s degree.
One day a coworker came to her with crazy idea.
“She said, ‘I think we should join the Air Force Reserve,’” Steadman said. “She had gathered all the information, but it turned out the Air Force would not accept me because of a technicality. They wouldn’t accept someone with a nursing associate’s degree unless the university was accredited, and to be accredited the program had to be at least 2 years old.”
The Clemson nursing program was too young when she graduated, so she couldn’t join the Air Force, but the bug had been put in her ear. One of the nurses she worked with in the MUSC intensive care unit served during the Vietnam War and was still attached to a small Army Reserve hospital unit in Charleston.
“She said, ‘Why don’t you try coming to our unit?’” Steadman said. “I thought, ‘OK, why not?’ I applied and, to my surprise, I got in — so I kind of joined the military on a whim.”
It was 1974. Because she had six years of experience as a nurse at MUSC, she was commissioned as a first lieutenant. The vast majority of U.S. military officers commission at the lesser rank of second lieutenant – so her Army career was extraordinary from the start.
Steadman worked at MUSC and drilled with Army Reserve hospital units in the Charleston area for two years before moving to Birmingham, Alabama, to attend graduate school for a master’s degree in cardiovascular nursing. Three years later, she relocated to Savannah, Georgia, and became part of the 345th Combat Support Hospital in Jacksonville, Florida, steadily gaining leadership experience and rising up the ranks.
By the time she was sent to Operation Desert Storm in 1990 she was a lieutenant colonel.
“We got to Dummam [Saudi Arabia] a couple of days before the air war started. I was in charge of emergency and critical care. We sat for 10 days or so at the port waiting for our equipment because it came by boat. While we were waiting there in warehouses, the air war started. I remember our commander saying, ‘Oh don’t worry, they [Scud missiles] can’t reach this far.’”
He was wrong. For the next few weeks, Steadman would listen to the Gulf War taking place right over her head.
“We could hear the Patriot missiles launch and then hear them destroy the Scuds,” Steadman recalled. “One night it happened right over us, and we could hear the shrapnel raining down on the roof of the warehouse.”
Steadman’s unit was assigned as the farthest forward MASH, supporting the 3rd Armored Division as it pushed inland. The ground war ended after just 100 hours, so her MASH unit never had time to fully stand up. Instead, Steadman and her fellow nurses flew in Chinook helicopters to help other MASH units. They operated out of tents in the middle of the desert, helping patients who were mostly Iraqi woman and children injured by stepping on unexploded ordinance.
When she came back to the states, Steadman spent several years teaching the Combat Trauma Nursing Course to military units all over the U.S. In 1995, she became the chief nurse of the 818th Medical Brigade in Atlanta, commanding all Army Reserve medical units in South Carolina, Florida and Georgia.
In 1998, Steadman was accepted to the U.S. Army War College, the highest level of military education and required for general officers. She graduated with 21 other female officers in a class of 225. Afterward, she transferred to Army Civil Affairs which, like the Rangers and Green Berets, is part of Special Operations Command.
She returned to war less than a year after 9/11 as part of the 360th Civil Affairs Brigade, attached to the 18th Airborne Corps, the first major unit to go into Afghanistan after special operations forces. By that time Steadman had been promoted to colonel, which made her the highest-ranking female service member in Afghanistan.
This time, the mission was to support Afghanistan’s central government by working with the various ministries (health, education, interior etc.). She made it a point not to allow her rank or gender from doing anything male soldiers did, like unloading trucks or pulling middle-of-the-night guard duty.
Steadman recounted how she would visit hospitals around Kabul with other members of her unit. She remembers how the country was in chaos when they got there, with no light, electricity or water throughout much of the city, making driving the streets hazardous. As a civil affairs element, part of the mission was to support and strengthen the medical infrastructure of the city. They would drive to the hospitals in their Army vehicles, always leaving at least one person at the vehicle to post “car guard” while the others went in.
When Steadman had car guard duty, it always attracted attention.
“I’d take my turn and the locals would just be in awe seeing a female in uniform. The men and children would encircle me and just inch in closer and closer to get a look,” she said, speaking about how dangerous it was in an almost nonchalant tone. “It wasn’t scary, because it was just so interesting. There were always mortar rounds coming into Kabul, but they had terrible aim, so they’d land in the street mostly.”
Steadman retired from the Army in 2004 and from MUSC in 2012. She worked at MUSC for a total of 33 years in a variety of capacities, the last 15 as a nurse practitioner and instructor in the College of Medicine. Along the way she earned master’s degrees from the University of Alabama in cardiovascular nursing and from the Army War College in strategic studies. She also earned a post-master’s certificate from the University of South Carolina as an acute care practitioner.
Retirement has not stopped her from serving others. She’s spent the last six years volunteering as a primary care provider at a free clinic in Beaufort, which quickly became one of her favorite jobs ever. “I wouldn’t want to get paid for it,” she said.
In 2005, Steadman responded to a request from the Women in Military Service for America Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery, which was preparing to open a section dedicated to military women during the War on Terror. It is the only major national memorial honoring U.S. servicewomen and now displays Steadman’s uniform and pictures as one of the modern pioneers of women who served their country. She’s characteristically modest about the honor.
“I am just one among many honored at the memorial,” Steadman said, emphasizing she attended the dedication alongside hundreds of service women from all branches of the military. But her unusually high rank attracted attention.
“We had the best opportunity to mingle that day and meet women who served before we were born, including one from World War I. Several World War II and Korea veterans asked to have pictures taken with me since I was a colonel.”
Karon Donald, program manager for Clemson University Commissions, including the Commission on Women, said Steadman’s story is inspiring to Clemson women, including herself. Donald said she felt an immediate connection to Steadman and her remarkable journey as her youngest daughter graduated from Clemson’s nursing program in 2016. Donald has family that served in Operation Desert Storm, and her great aunt was an Air Force veteran who served as a nurse overseas during World War II.
“There are so many parallels with my family history that makes her feel like family,” said Donald. “I know first-hand the level of dedication and service Col. Steadman exemplifies. She is truly a remarkable person and I am in awe of all she has accomplished. I’m honored we are a part of the same Clemson Family.”
Reflecting on her career in nursing, Steadman marveled at how much the profession has changed since she first stepped onto the Clemson campus as a wide-eyed and hopeful nursing student.
“I really do encourage people to go into nursing because there are so many different opportunities in that career field now,” she said. “When I graduated you could either work in a doctor’s office or in a hospital. Now, if you don’t like bedside nursing – which is all many people equate nursing to – there are so many other things that can be done, and so many opportunities for advancement and education.”
Kathleen Valentine, chief academic nursing officer and director of the School of Nursing, said Clemson’s nursing program has grown step-in-step with the profession, and now includes eight academic programs including Master’s, doctor of nursing practice, and Ph.D. doctorates, enabling students to enhance practice at the bedside as well as advanced practice opportunities across the continuum of care.
“Clemson’s School of Nursing is 50 years strong, and we are proud of our alumnae, like Colonel Steadman, who have made an impact in the field of nursing with its many varied opportunities,” said Valentine. “Colonel Steadman is such an inspiration, and we look forward to seeing more alumni in the next 50 years build their careers and advance the field of nursing as she did.”
Nursing has been described as “both an art and a science, a heart and a mind,” a sentiment encapsulated in Steadman’s extraordinary career, and she says it all began with choosing the right profession.
“I don’t think there are too many other careers today that have so many different paths,” she said. “I’m so thankful for all the opportunities nursing has afforded me, and it all started at Clemson.”