Women’s Military History Week Highlights: Kim T. Gray and Jean Kirnak

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Wrapping up Oregon Women’s Military History Week are Coast Guard veteran Kim Gray (one of the few people on earth who can say they’ve sailed around the world — literally ) and Jean Kirnak, a nurse in the legendary 8076 MASH unit, which was recognized for the meritorious and life-saving service it courageously provided throughout the Korean War.

Kim T. Gray, U.S. Coast Guard

An oft-stated motivation by many a wide-eyed military recruit is a desire to see the world — but few can say they did that literally.

Kim Gray, who retired after 21 years as a quartermaster in the United States Coast Guard, is one of the few.

“During my service time, I was able to circumnavigate Antarctica and visit every continent in the world,” she said, “seeing and experiencing many cultures and countries, traveling as far south as McMurdo Station, Antarctica, and as far north as Barrow, Alaska.”

Gray spent nine and a half years of sea time on four cutters and three different platforms: law enforcement, polar operations, and aids to navigation. She also taught navigation in “A” and “C” school.

“I was able to circumnavigate Antarctica and visit every continent in the world.”

Kim T. Gray, U.S. Coast Guard

After her service, Gray earned an associate of applied science degree in information systems technology, an undergraduate certificate in instructional design and delivery from American Military University, a bachelor’s degree in psychology from Saint Leo University, and an associate’s degree in fine art and photography from Northern Virginia Community College.

She joined the Oregon Bureau of Land Management team, where her primary duty is managing geospatial data — which can be tricky because the technology is constantly changing and evolving.

She is also passionate about photography and prefers shooting film over digital with a large format view camera. In 2017, she was part of a photography exhibit of her own, being one of 20 Oregon women veterans featured in the Oregon Department of Veteran’s Affairs’ I Am Not Invisible campaign.

Jean Kirnak, Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) Nurse, Korean War

On Nov. 14, 1950, Jean Kirnak went to war. She was the daughter of Montana homesteaders, so poor that — in her words — “we didn’t even know we were poor.”

She had become a nurse through a post-World War II program and joined the Army Nurse Corps upon graduation. When the Korean War began 18 months later, her unit was given orders to fly to Pyongyang, North Korea, and join the 8076 MASH tent.

The 8076 spent the next several months on the move, serving as a mobile surgical hospital, traveling steadily south with U.N. forces and treating hundreds of casualties each day. They were never more than 10 miles from the front line, and the sound of gunfire was never far behind.

“Because we were so close to the front line, we were able to render treatment more quickly, thus saving more lives than in previous wars,” Kirnak later said.

The 8076 MASH was later awarded the Meritorious Unit Commendation for “displaying such outstanding devotion and superior performance of exceptionally difficult tasks as to set it apart and above other units.”

Kirnak returned home in August 1951 and was discharged a year later. She used her GI Bill benefits to attend classes at the University of Oregon and earned a Bachelor of Science in nursing. She worked as a registered nurse, retiring in 1994. In 2000, she returned to South Korea with her son in a trip financed by the Korean government.

Sixty years later, she still described her military service as “a highlight of my life.”

ODVA will be sharing stories of women veterans via Facebook and Twitter throughout the week of March 14-20.

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