In her role as Santa Monica High School’s nurse, Nora McElvain cares for scores of students each day, whether they come in with injuries, viruses or mental health issues.
She also offers administrative support, attends meetings, compiles health reports and supervises student nurses.
But few of the students McElvain encounters on a daily basis are probably aware that she was a longtime nurse in the National Guard who also served in the U.S. Army for about two and a half years, tending to soldiers who held combat roles in Iraq and Afghanistan following the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
“Having served soldiers over my whole adult life and learning to be independent made me highly qualified to do this job,” she said. “I’m pretty much an independent practitioner because the doctor isn’t always here. What I learned with the military, I carry over. I can make a splint out of anything, and I’m able to function independently and think on the fly.”
McElvain, who has worked in the Santa Monica-Malibu school district since 2000, is one of several Samohi staffers with military service backgrounds.
Auto shop instructor Daniel Cox served in the U.S. Navy for four years. Office specialist Diana Morales held a National Guard post for six. Campus security officer Richard Harris was in the Air Force for four. Custodial staffers Bruno Anderson and Saleem Omari both spent time in the armed forces as well.
The high school is closed today in observance of Veterans Day.
“When you swear allegiance to the Constitution, you’re writing a blank check that you’re willing to volunteer wherever they send you for whatever purpose,” Cox said. “It’s important to remember that Veterans Day is for those who served and fought, but there are plenty of veterans who never made it back, and they’re an important part of the story as well. It’s about being thankful that a few of us served so the rest of us could live in peace.”
As a community college student in the late 1960s, Cox anticipated joining the service through the draft. He enlisted in the U.S. Navy as a radioman so he could learn a technical skill while serving the country.
Originally stationed in Honolulu, Cox was responsible for managing telephone communication systems and assisted on the Apollo 11 and Apollo 12 missions. He also served a stint in San Diego on the USS Rowan destroyer before being transferred to Long Beach and discharged in 1972.
Cox became interested in an education career after returning to community college on the G.I. Bill and hearing from a guest speaker who was an industrial arts teacher at Cal State Los Angeles, where he transferred to earn his degrees and teaching credentials.
“It hit a nice note with me,” he said.
After a short stint at West High School in Torrance, Cox landed a job as an auto shop teacher at Samohi in 1979 and remained there until he retired in 2012. He taught concurrently at East Los Angeles College and at a North Hollywood adult school.
A 67-year-old father of seven who was twice named teacher of the year, Cox came out of retirement this year to help Samohi set up its new auto shop.
“I was called back to service like an old warhorse,” he said.
For McElvain, the school nurse, military service was something of a family tradition. Her father was a Navy veteran who served in the Coast Guard Reserve for 17 years, and a brother-in-law was in the National Guard.
“I was always interested,” she said. “It struck a chord with me to be able to serve my country at the same time as doing my nursing. It’s kind of a calling.”
Born and raised in El Segundo, McElvain attended El Camino College for her associate degree before earning a bachelor’s from Cal State Dominguez Hills and a school nurse credential from Fresno State.
Starting with the 143rd Evacuation Hospital in Los Alamitos in 1985, McElvain served in the National Guard on a variety of healthcare tasks through 2012.
After 9/11, McElvain prepared soldiers for overseas missions by conducting physicals and evaluating their combat readiness. And in 2004, McElvain joined the Army for two and a half years to care for soldiers returning home from Iraq and Afghanistan with serious injuries and psychological trauma.
“We lived vicariously,” she said. “It had its ups and downs, but I would do it all over again. It’s made me a much better, more well-rounded person.”
McElvain was planning to spend Nov. 11 with her 18-year-old son and take advantage of the specials that some restaurants offer to current and former armed forces personnel.
“Veterans Day is the holiday honoring all veterans, alive and dead,” she said. “It’s our sacrifice and our willingness to sacrifice that helps make us who we are as a country. … We took an oath to do what they tell us to do. We stepped up to the plate.”