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Major Bonnie A. Francis: The story of an Air Force legend, as recounted by fellow Airmen and friends

For those who don’t know, Major Bonnie Ann Francis was born and raised in Quincy, a small rural town in North Florida. Francis’  late parents – Leroy Francis and Thelma Lois Shaw – were her role models. They taught her at an early age about the difference between  right and wrong. They were Christians who instilled in young Bonnie to do the right thing, even when no one was looking; and to treat people the way she would want to be treated. Most importantly, Bonnie’s parents  taught her to be a “citizen of the universe” – by being kind, considerate, understanding to all human beings; and that love and kindness will always trump hate. Simply put, Bonnie’s parents gave her the tools she needed to succeed in life and ultimately laid the strong foundation that led their daughter to a career in healthcare and the military.  

Francis was in her sophomore year of college when she realized she was bored and wanted to experience greater excitement. So what does she do? In 1979, at age 19, Francis enlisted in the United States Army. Bonnie started out as a field medic – a “91 bravo,” as they’re called. She earned her Licensed Practical Nursing degree in the Army, becoming a “91 charlie.” 

Francis spent six years as an active duty soldier and 16 years in active reserves.  In 1991, her Army reserve unit was activated, deploying to Kuwait in support of Operation Desert Shield and Operation Desert Storm. She was assigned to a military police unit as a medic. Whatever the MPs were doing, she was doing also – really roughing it most of the time. They were sleeping on cots in GP medium tents and using makeshift outdoor toilets and showers; they built everything from the ground up.   

During visits to Air Force operating bases in Desert Storm, Francis was exposed to the Air Force way of life. Some call it the “chair force.” Francis saw Air Force personnel wearing shorts on base and enjoying air conditioning and hot showers. 

“I thought  I was seeing a mirage,” Francis recalled. Learning that the Air Force was like the “Mercedes of the Armed Services” and they needed flight nurses, she was quickly sold on transferring to U.S. Air Force. Still, Francis said she received “outstanding training” from the Army and “grew as an enlisted soldier” during her stint with the branch.      

Francis would go on to earn a bachelor’s in nursing and was commissioned in the Air Force in 2001. She was in Commissioned Officer Training at the time of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. All the classes were moved into an auditorium, and the tragedies were shown in real-time on a big screen. At first, Francis recalled, she and many of her classmates thought it was only a test – to evaluate how the officers-in-training would react under a state of emergency. 

Like every other American on that fateful day, Francis would soon discover the events unfolding on the screen before her were all too real. At that moment, Francis remembered, she knew she was “exactly where she needed to be.”

Francis’ first Air Force assignment was at Keesler AFB, where she spent three-and-a-half years in the general surgery and ambulatory procedure units. During this inaugural stint, Francis cared for countless patients and helped save many lives. 

“I grew as a nurse,” Francis recalled. And such “growth” didn’t go unnoticed by her superiors. Comments by commanding officers in some of Francis’ first evaluations in the Air Force include: “The Company Grade Officer every AF unit would like to have,” “positive representative of the military in all she does,” “sharp/driven officer…epitomizes AF core values,” “can-do attitude,” ‘fantastic role model; impeccable officer/leader,” “tireless in all endeavors…need 10 more like her…” Glowing reviews like these would become mainstays in Francis’ personnel files throughout her career as an Airman.  

After Keesler, Francis spent two-and-a-half years at Lakenheath, followed by four years at Eglin. Whether working the ambulatory procedure unit, anesthesia care or any other unit, Francis proved a “clinical powerhouse” in every assignment. She was a role model and mentor to the junior enlisted and a sought-after preceptor for the phase II students, the nurse transition program and for new staff members. Francis’ star performance was key to her squadron at Eglin winning the MDG’s “Squadron of the Year” award in 2006, the Air Force “Best Hospital of the Year” in 2007, not to mention garnering one of only two “Outstanding” Health Services Inspection ratings in the entire Air Force in 2009.

Her stint at Eglin culminated in her being selected out of 129 captains to serve as the MDG executive officer, a role in which she garnered superior citations from start to finish. As one of her superiors put it, Francis was a “passionate officer and dedicated nurse” who demonstrated “exceptional performance in the toughest of environments.” She “set the standard for others to follow,” one of her numerous raving review reads.

Francis would go on to achieve her goal of becoming a flight nurse, serving in combat zones over Iraq and Afghanistan, among other missions – saving lives and standing out as best of the military’s best all along the way. 

Over her 40 years, Francis was indeed among the best – a great friend, airman, wingman, leader, warrior and no less than an Air Force legend. 

But Francis’ selfless, huge-hearted deeds don’t end when she takes off her uniform. For years, Francis has shown kindness, gratitude, love and charity to far too many to count.

Bonnie Stevenson, writer of the preceding story, is a colonel in the U.S. Air Force and long-time friend of Major Bonnie Francis, whom she affectionately refers to as “Bonnie #1.” 

The following is a bio penned by Carl Owenby, another friend of Francis’:

On Tuesday, April 30th, Major Bonnie Ann Francis will retire after a combined 40 years of distinguished militay service in the United States Army and the Air Force. Major Francis is the daughter of the late Leroy Francis and Thelma Lois Shaw of Quincy.

Major Francis earned a B.S. degree in Nursing from Saint John Fisher College in 1999 and her M.S. degree in Health Sciences Public Health from Trident University International in 2018.

Selected comments from Col. Bonnie Stevenson during Major Francis’ retirement ceremony:

“A native of Quincy, Florida and 1977 graduate of Shanks High School, Bonnie enlisted in the United States Army in 1979 at the age of 19. She started out as a field medic known as a 91 bravo. She eventually earned her LPN (Licensed practical nurse) in the Army and became a 91 charlie. She says taking care of the soldiers was her calling.”

“Bonnie spent 6 years as an active duty soldier and 16 years active reserves as a 91 charlie. In 1991, her Army reserve unit was activated for 1 year and they deployed to Kuwait in support of Operation DESERT SHIELD/STORM. She was assigned to a Military Police unit as their medic. Whatever the MPs were doing, she was doing.”

“Bonnie earned her nursing degree while in the reserves and received her commission in the Air Force in 2001. Bonnie was actually in Commissioned Officer Training at the time of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001. All the classes were brought into the auditorium and the real time events were shown on the big screen. At first, she and others thought it was a test to see how they would react under a state of emergency. When she found out it was real, she said that everything that the Army had trained her for came back echoing in her brain! At that moment, she knew that she was exactly where she needed to be.”

“Her first assignment was Keesler Air Force Base where she spent 3.5 years. In this assignment, she spent most of her time on the general surgery unit and her last year in the ambulatory procedure unit.”

“After Keesler, she spent 2.5 years at RAF Lakenheath (England) and 4 years at Eglin Air Force Base, both in the ambulatory procedure unit and post anesthesia care unit. In these assignments, she proved she was a clinical powerhouse and continued to lead by example. She was a role model and mentor to the junior enlisted and a sought after preceptor for the phase II students, the nurse transition program and for new staff members.”

“Her last year at Eglin culminated in her being selected out of 129 captains to serve as the Medical Group (MDG) executive officer where she was cited as superior from day 1!”

“Bonnie finally became a flight nurse which was one of the main reasons she crossed over into the Air Force. She spent 4.5 years at the best active duty AE squadronÖthe 43d Aeromedical Evacuation Squadron. This unit was extremely busy deploying, participating in local and major command exercises and training on local trainers. She was the clinical management flight commander and directed all Education & Training programs for 256 total force flyers/ground support personnel. Bonnie was also the interim chief nurse. I am sure you can guess, she was an outstanding interim chief nurse, flight commander and flight nurse.”

“This phenomenal, selfless, servant leader deployed 11 times during her military career. As previously mentioned, once during her Army days, then 10 more while in the AF! She has deployed to Kuwait, Germany, Qatar x3, Iraq, Afghanistan x4 and Kelly Field in TX. As you can guess, she found each deployment rewarding.”

“One of her major contributions to the Air Force was her deployment to Kabul, Afghanistan in 2014 where she was the Patient Evacuation Coordination Cell Battle Captain. It was a no fail mission where she directed the Joint Operations Center ñ Capital. Basically, she had to coordinate MEDEVAC-Army-9 line/TACEVAC/AE missions from point of injury to Kabul. Bonnie’s tireless efforts secured 76 helo/587 missions for 800+ war-fighters. In this position she felt like she was really saving lives and called this a Fantastic job!”

During her retirement ceremony, Major Francis was awarded The Meritorious Service Medal. In addition, she received a certificate of appreciation from President Trump, a United States flag that flew over the nation’s capitol, and a letter of congratulations from President Jimmy Carter. A special guest in attendance was Major Francis’ 90 year old aunt, Mrs. Annie Pearl West of Quincy.

Following her retirement, Major Francis will return to Quincy to continue volunteering and serving in her community.

By Carl Owenby

Photos courtesy Carl Owenby