Carmelita Vigil-Schimmenti was the first Hispanic woman to reach the rank of brigadier general.
Carmelita Vigil-Schimmenti grew up in Albuquerque, New Mexico. She lived with her family on a pinto bean farm, land that her grandfather received through a homestead. She began working when she was 12 years old to save money for college, and those savings, along with a scholarship from the American Legion, supported the costs of a nursing program near her home. She earned a nursing diploma from Regina School of Nursing, Albuquerque, in 1957.
In 1958, Vigil-Schimmenti joined the Air Force Nurse Corps. Her father had been medically disqualified from serving during World War II but believed service was an important aspect of citizenship. This belief stayed with Vigil-Schimmenti, and she joined the Air Force for both her country and her father. For the next two years, Vigil-Schimmenti was in Ohio at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base, working as an operating nurse and general duty nurse. She also finished her flight nurse course.
Vigil-Schimmenti moved through a variety of positions, working as a nurse at air bases in Japan for the majority of the 1960s during the Vietnam War. In 1968, she got married and became “the charge nurse in the school health program and primary care screening nurse at United States Air Force [USAF] Dispensary, Kadena Air Base, Okinawa.” She stayed there for three years until she was assigned to David Grant USAF Medical Center, Travis Air Force Base, California, where she continued to work as a charge nurse in the emergency services and primary care clinic, oncology clinic and home care services. She also earned a degree in nursing from the University of Pittsburgh and a Master of Public Health from the University of North Carolina.
When speaking about serving as a nurse during the Vietnam War, Vigil-Schimmenti said that “Vietnam had a profound effect on my priorities as a nurse… I was assigned to medical centers where we cared for many of the long-term casualties of the Vietnam War, and I was blessed to hear many of their stories of survival. From them, I learned to cherish my role as nurse and the connection we have with patients by being with them around the clock.” According to her, “caring is always good medicine.”
For the next few years, she worked at different Air Force bases and medical centers, taking on bigger roles and leadership positions. In 1983, she advanced to command nurse at Offutt Air Force Base. Then, in 1985, she was promoted to brigadier general, becoming the chief of the Air Force Nurse Corps. She worked in Washington, D.C., in the office of the surgeon general until her retirement in 1988.
Vigil-Schimmenti was the first Hispanic woman to reach the rank of brigadier general. When speaking about her role as a leader, she said: “As Air Force chief nurse and a general officer, I did not change my leadership style. I believe that the principles of effective leadership apply at each rung of the ladder; the issues and challenges are different, but the fundamentals remain unchanged.”
Vigil-Schimmenti retired after 30 years of service, receiving multiple awards and honors throughout her career, including a Legion of Merit. She is a member of the American Nursing Association.
We honor her service.
Writer: Kimberly Kassis
Editors: Alexander Reza, Annabelle Colton
Researcher: David Deprez
Graphic Designer: Kiki Kelley