Paul Kohler ’20MSN has limited time before he has to go, but he doesn’t sound rushed.

“I want to make sure everyone has the same level of care that I’d want for my brother or for myself. Everyone deserves that. It’s why I like working at the VA.”
— Paul Kohler ’20MSN

He’s used to pressure. While he speaks over the phone from Charleston Air Force Base, he has only a few hours to polish up some papers for his Masters of Science in Nursing degree and pack his duffel bag. By evening he’ll be flying over the Atlantic Ocean to a country he cannot mention.

As a flight nurse with the Air Force Reserves, Captain Kohler doesn’t know how long he’ll be gone or where he might be told to go next. Only that he’ll be putting his experience and his graduate-level education to work in a venue few of us can imagine.

The motto of Kohler’s 934th Air Medical Evacuation Squadron spells out their mission at this very moment: “Deny death’s victory.” In other words, save the lives of COVID-19 patients on the other side of the world. While we see stories of healthcare heroes working around the clock in hospitals and convention centers, Kohler’s team of critical care and infectious disease specialists will carry out their work 30,000 feet in the air.

“This type of mobilization for COVID-19 is unlike any that the Air Force has ever done,” says Kohler, 38. “We’re writing history.”

This is the second time an emergency call from the Air Force has superseded Kohler’s graduation plans. Before he could complete his capstone last fall, he was deployed to the Middle East. Then, in early April, while working his full-time job at the North Florida/South Georgia Veterans Health System, he received a call he knew was coming. Kohler had 48 hours to spend time with his wife, two young daughters, and their horses in Gainesville, and speed up his remaining master’s requirements online before leaving for pandemic training.

“I’m close enough to the finish line for my degree this time,” he says. “My instructors understand the situation. They’ve been flexible.”

The usual situations for a reservist have been coming up since before Kohler enrolled in UCF’s MSN program in 2017. He’s required to spend anywhere from three to seven days every month at a base in Minneapolis, with longer assignments in places like Qatar, Afghanistan, and locations most of us barely know how to pronounce. Kohler admits it’s difficult to leave his family, but he also knows someone has to deny death’s victory.

“I go where the emergencies are,” he says.

Some sort of frontline has always drawn Kohler close. He entered the Army out of high school and, up until the age of 25, had his sights set on one goal.

“I wanted to be a firefighter,” he says.

Everything changed in 2007 when his younger brother, Michael, was seriously injured during a military operation in Iraq. Michael couldn’t remember much about the ensuing hours and days, but he did know that certain medical personnel kept him as comfortable as possible while he’d been transported out of harm’s way and back home to the U.S. Those people? They were flight nurses.

“What I’m doing now is exactly what the flight nurses did for my brother,” says Kohler. “His experience had a big influence on my decision to go this route.”

Michael’s long recovery in VA hospitals also left a mark on Kohler. “I want to make sure everyone has the same level of care that I’d want for my brother or for myself. Everyone deserves that. It’s why I like working at the VA.”

Kohler has known he needs to be in a leadership role to ensure people who are hurting receive the best care possible, and to be in a leadership role he’d need an advanced degree from a well-respected nursing school. He found his first step up the ladder at UCF.

“If I need to go to school in person, it’s only 90 minutes from our house,” he says. “Unless I’m doing something like this.”

As you read this, Capt. Paul Kohler is saving lives and helping to rewrite history somewhere far away. “This has to be my singular focus,” he says. When he returns home at an unknown time, he’ll come back to his wife, daughters, horse trails, and a MSN diploma with his name on it. His writing of history will have just begun.