Oklahoma Woman Recounts Her 30 Years In The Air Force
OWASSO, Oklahoma - Crystal Nadine Epperson has spent the 94 years of her life pushing the limits and breaking barriers for women.
She was born in 1924 in a small Nowata County community, Ruthdale, that no longer exists. Her dad worked in the oilfields, while Epperson dreamed of a life full of travel.
“I wanted to see the world, see all those pictures I saw in the geography book,” Epperson said, “When I graduated from the 4th grade in that two-room school, I knew when I took geography that's what I wanted to do.”
At 22 years old, Epperson joined the Air Force. She originally planned to sign up for the Navy, but a chance meeting with an Air Force member on her way to join changed her mind. She says he gave her and her friend many reasons to join, but that last thing he said sealed the deal.
“Toward the end he said, 'And there's one other thing that you have to remember.' I said, 'What's that?' And he said, 'You girls would look a lot better in Air Force blue than you would Navy blue.' So we signed,” she said laughing.
Epperson went to flight school and earned her wings. She served as a chief nurse during the Korean and Vietnam Wars and rose to the rank of Colonel.
In Korea, a sniper shot her in the knee during an airborne medical evacuation rescue mission.
It was a flight Epperson wasn’t supposed to be on because at the time, she says, women weren’t allowed to go on such missions. But she was a flight nurse and wanted to utilize her training, so Epperson says she talked the pilot into letting her go.
She says she spent the next several weeks nursing her wound in secret.
“I couldn't tell anybody because it would have gotten the pilot in trouble and me in trouble because we did something against the rules,” she said.
About a month later, Epperson says the sergeant who was with her on the helicopter brought her a surprise, wrapped in a little box.
“He said ‘I have something for you.’ and I said, 'What is it?' and he said, 'Open it up and see.' So I opened it up and it was a .45,” Epperson said. “He said, 'That man, that guy, is not gonna shoot anymore nurses.' And he had gone out and got the sniper and got his gun and brought it to me.”
In Vietnam, the enemies captured her and three others while on another rescue mission. The four were held captive as prisoners of war for four days before being rescued.
During her time at war, Epperson helped save countless lives. But there’s one rescue that’s etched in her memory forever, an airman who came to her triage unit after losing both his legs and an arm.
“He looked up and with a big smile and said, ‘Hi,’ Epperson said. “I asked him how he felt and he said, ‘I can’t feel anything, my legs are numb, my whole body’s numb.’ Then he told me he was just 21, and that really got me.”
She said she sent him on to the doctor and years later he sent her a letter.
“He sent me a brochure of a ship building company and he was a CEO. And I thought, 'At least one of them I saved.' And it made me feel good,” said Epperson. “I was so glad he did that because I didn't know what had happened to him. And there he was, married with a family and his support group was so good that that pulled him through.”
Her 30 years in the Air Force flew by and she calls it the best time of her life.
“I was 22 when I joined the service. I can think of all the things that happened and it seems like just yesterday,” she said.
There are many moments from the wars she tries not to think about. Those tough experiences, where she never gave up, made her better, tougher and stronger. They made her an even more proud American.
“Just stay with it. Sometimes you get discouraged and you think, 'Well, I'll quit.' Well, that's the wrong time to quit. You wait. It gets better. It always does. It always did for me,” Epperson said. “And you have to be patriotic. You can't not love country and be in the military, so you have to fight for it no matter what.”
Epperson has visited 92 countries and she never married because she said a husband would have held her back. It’s a decision she says she doesn’t regret one bit.
“I always told my mom I wouldn’t be the child to give her grandchildren,” she said.
After she retired, Epperson lived in Texas for 30 years. She moved to the Owasso Baptist Retirement Village in Oklahoma to be closer to her brother after she broke her hip two years ago.
That's another story of just how tough Epperson is; in 2016, she fell nine feet into a mine shaft in Colorado and managed to climb out on her own. She then rolled 50 yards to her cabin, where she laid on the floor for 20 hours before a friend came and found her.
“I thought I was going to die there on the floor and I was OK with that, but my dog kept licking me in the face each time I tried to pass out and that’s what kept me alive,” she said.
She misses living at her home in Texas and the independent lifestyle she led all her life. But in many ways she’s still living just as she always did – in the moment.
“[Life is] short. It can go any time, so don't look forward too much. Don't anticipate too much for the future because it probably won’t be there,” Epperson said. “I never think about tomorrow, I just work today and the war taught me a lot. Vietnam and Korea taught me a lot.”
There are two things left in life she wants to do, go to the moon and, even though she’s jumped from a plane 300 times, she wants to skydive one more time.