Dec. 13, 2013

by Tracy Nelson

Liz Lazzari is one of the most motivated, compassionate and driven people I have  ever had the pleasure of not only coaching, but knowing as a person. She puts her heart and soul into everything she does. Simply put, she is the epitome of the type of leader West Point aims to mold." - Army volleyball head coach Alma Kovaci

Elizabeth Lazzari was raised on the sandy beaches of California and grew up playing volleyball any chance she got. Just over two decades later, Lazzari was commanding a platoon in sands of a whole different variety.

One of only three players in Army volleyball history to serve as a two-time team captain, Lazzari's list of accomplishments is equally historic and impressive. A former Junior Olympics gold medalist, she is the only volleyball player in West Point history to win the prestigious Army Athletic Association Trophy. She was also the first to represent Army at the United States Women's National Volleyball Team open tryouts. A three-time All-Patriot League performer and 2005 Patriot League Rookie of the Year, Lazzari is one of just three players in Army's 33-year history to record 1,000 kills and 1,000 digs in her career.

The list goes on but the verdict remains the same. Lazzari graduated as one of the most decorated, well-rounded players to ever don a Black Knights uniform. Those who know her were certain she would go on to embody that same drive and spirit when she joined the "Big Army."

Commissioned as a second lieutenant during graduation exercises in May 2009, Lazzari remained at West Point as an athletic intern with the volleyball team. In her seven months assisting on the sidelines, the new officer helped guide Army to its first Patriot League title in 15 years and its only trip to the NCAA Division I Tournament.

The next five months were over in the blink of an eye, as Lazzari successfully completed stops at the Joint Readiness Training Center in Fort Polk, La., and Fort Campbell, Ky., for Air Assault School before landing in Sharana, Afghanistan, for her first deployment. Lazzari, who has now reached the rank of captain, had entered the Medical Service branch of the U.S. Army and commanded a unit of 40 soldiers consisting of both medics and providers.

"I hadn't had a lot of time with my soldiers prior to heading into deployment," Lazzari says, who was a fresh-faced 23-year-old when she arrived in Afghanistan. "It forces you to grow up really quickly. All 40 of my soldiers were looking to me to make hard decisions and give them guidance. Deployment forced me to develop a little bit faster than I would have if I had more `Garrison time.' Once you're deployed, decisions you make could mean life or death. You're managing these soldiers' lives and making them into a team."

Lazzari's "team" was based out of Sharana, one of the larger Forward Operating Bases (FOB) in Afghanistan and the capital of Paktika province. There she took command as the post's clinic Officer In Charge (OIC) where she oversaw a wealth of medics, along with doctors, nurses, a physical therapist, dentist, behavioral health specialist and two physician's assistants -- all of whom out-ranked her.

In addition to her day-to-day duties as the clinic OIC, Lazzari spent some of her time with an attached surgical unit that completed medical procedures for anyone in the Sharana area of operations. Among the most frequent procedures were amputations and intricate surgeries to repair hands and other limbs.

"One of the main reasons I chose Medical Service was because our mission is clear and it never changes," Lazzari says. "Our mission is to provide care and save lives -- no matter what the circumstances.

"While nobody enjoys seeing hurt or dead people, it made me feel like I could explain our purpose to my platoon," she adds. "I think for a lot of people, it's difficult to define a purpose of any war and what it really is all about."

Soon after her arrival in Afghanistan, Lazzari began working with an Army ODA (Operational Detachment Alpha) team, which wanted to start doing medical missions focused on the female population in Sharana and the outlying areas. In the early stages, she provided supplies and answered questions. That was not enough -- Lazzari wanted to make a difference, and it showed.

When the Special Forces ODA unit began the planning process for the medical missions, Lazzari came to mind as the ideal lieutenant to call upon for assistance.

"I went out on the first mission and brought female providers and medics along," she recalls. "I provided the security piece, which involved patting down the females prior to their receiving treatment. As everyone is aware, men are not allowed to touch their women in that culture, so that was the whole reason I was brought in.

"A lot of the women have very serious, chronic conditions and because they are women, they don't have much access to care," she adds. "It's also a very poor region. In general, some of the conditions that our providers were seeing, in our country, a patient would have been immediately transported to a hospital and put on weeks and weeks of treatment.

"For us, it was difficult because we didn't have that kind of authority or access. It was more a case of `If you do X, Y and Z, it will help with pain.'"

The missions themselves typically lasted about eight hours and involved treating females and their children for ailments ranging from ear wax build-up in babies to congestive heart failure in the elderly. With each case, the medical team did as much as possible to alleviate the problem and did so using only medication available locally.

"We never issued American medication," Lazzari explains. "We only went out and bought medicine on their economy so that it was a sustainable thing that could be resupplied at a local pharmacy. That also diminished the amount of care we could provide because we didn't have access to all of the medicine that we would normally. We did as much as we possibly could."

Lazzari says sometimes, the patients just want to be given something -- even if it was a couple of M&Ms like one provider used to bring along in the rare case that absolutely nothing could be done. They simply want hope that what's ailing them may subside.

"The missions were so helpful for the medical professionals in the region because they could get a survey of sorts of the major health concerns in that particular area," Lazzari says. "They were then able to provide the local doctors and female midwives with guidance on what medication or supplies to buy more of based on the population."

While Lazzari embraced her role in the medical missions themselves, it was after her security work finished that she really had the chance to make an impression.

"Once I was finished with security checks and nobody else was coming through, a lot of the kids would be waiting in the area outside for their parents to finish at the clinic," Lazzari says. "I brought volleyballs with me on my missions, just a couple in a sack, and handed them out to the kids. The interesting thing being in Afghanistan is they actually know how to play volleyball. When I threw the ball to them, they instinctively passed it back to me.

"I'm sure it's the same with all American women, but the children seemed to be fascinated by me because I walked right alongside with the men for work-related activity," she remembers. "They are just like American children, playing and doing the same things. They just don't have as many resources available to them. I think it was important for me to see that and relate to them. Seeing the little girls broke my heart because I know how undervalued women are in their country. It's a very poor area; a lot of the little girls didn't have shoes. They are still the most adorable, beautiful little girls."

Such missions continued throughout the majority of Lazzari's deployment, which eventually grew to her involvement in the Female Engagement Team (FET) over her last two months in Sharana. With roots in the United States Marine Corps, the FET conducts outreach primarily through interaction with women and children to learn about and report information on the local population. That information is then used to implement community development programs that will serve the needs of that specific local area.

After a year-long deployment, Lazzari returned from Afghanistan in July 2011. She made a stop in Fort Campbell, Ky., and was recently stationed in Korea where she served as the HHD Commander for the 168th Multi-Functional Medical Battalion. In July 2013, Lazzari headed back to her Golden State roots at the United States Army Garrison Presidio of Monterey.

It's ironic that when asked at the beginning of her "Firstie" year at West Point what her hopes were for the future, Lazzari said the following:

"I want to accomplish a lot of different things. But in the end, I hope to live each day to the fullest, capture each moment and bring more love into the world -- all in an effort to make it a better place. That is the greatest accomplishment I can hope for."

Liz Lazzari can consider her mission complete.

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