Meet the Best Defense Foundation’s Medical Team

2023 Normandy Battlefield Return

They defeated the Axis powers almost eight decades ago. Now, a group of 43 WWII veterans — with an average age of 100-years-old — have revisited their old battlegrounds throughout Normandy and paid tribute to those that never made it home.

The Best Defense Foundation recently concluded its 79th Anniversary of D-Day Battlefield Return Program to Normandy on June 8. Veterans who attended the program could not go without the Foundation’s caretakers and medical team that form the program’s backbone.

Through collaboration with 24/7 caretakers, the medical team assists with every veteran’s needs. Anything from assistance getting in and out of a wheelchair, managing daily medications, or assistance with medical procedures like self-catheterization.

The medical team cared for everyone on the Foundation’s team, including the caretakers, media team, partners from Delta and Michelin, and even locals if the need presented itself. They helped bandage cuts and scrapes, handed out electrolyte packets to those cramping up, and continually checked with everyone to ensure everyone was healthy.

Dr. Misty Zelk, the Foundation’s medical director, is at the helm of the medical team. Zelk retired as a Colonel and Group Commander of the 188th Medical Group, Arkansas Air National Guard. With over 22 years as an Internal Medicine physician specializing in geriatric medicine, she is the perfect person to lead the medical team.

“Dr. Zelk has been nothing but a breath of fresh air,” said Donnie Edwards, co-founder of BDF. “As every year goes on, our greatest generation of veterans is getting older, and some require a little more attention. […] It’s just amazing the work Dr. Zelk has done to bring it all together.”

Zelk joined the team in 2022 for the Foundation’s second Battlefield Return Program to Normandy since the COVID-19 pandemic shut down international travel. When Zelk first joined the program, she searched for any available documentation on traveling with a large group of elderly people. She dove into medical research centers like the National Institutes of Health.

How does one transport several 90-plus-year-olds across the ocean for a rigorous schedule of ceremonies all over Normandy while meeting the medical needs of each veteran? Zelk couldn’t find any other examples and pushed forward using her experience and medical expertise.

“It’s something we’re literally writing the book on,” Zelk said.

Zelk has created a team with three nurses, one EMT, one Paramedic, and a CPR instructor. Falls are a significant concern during the program due to the cobblestone roads, hedgerows, and persistent fans throughout the Normandy area. The Foundation is proud to report zero falls during the recent Battlefield Return Program to Normandy.

Each person on the medical team served as a ‘medic.’ As each year goes by, the need for more qualified medics increases exponentially. Everyone on the medical team is comfortable working in the field medicine setting and is experienced in varying patient populations, including both youth and elderly age groups.

Each squad of WWII veterans and their caretakers had a medic assigned to them. The Foundation traveled via four buses. No bus was allowed to leave without the medics onboard. But, before leaving the US, medical team members provided CPR certification for 40 volunteers.

Cori Russell wears a few different hats as a volunteer for the Foundation: medic, Program Coordinator, and Social Media Coordinator. She and Alicia Callahan, a BDF Next Gen student, certified the volunteers through an American Safety and Health Institute CPR course they hosted in the Atlanta hotel before the group flew to France.

Approximately 80% of the Foundation and its partners’ volunteers are CPR certified. That way, if any worst-case scenario unfolded, almost anyone on the team could help with medical care. CPR training for the majority of the group was only part of the planning that went into this program.

“With geriatrics, if you’re not very proactive and cover the things that you can cover in advance, you’re in trouble,” Zelk said. “Because there’s always going to be curveballs in this population.”

Zelk and her team worked on setting up contingency plans for every stage of the program. They established the closest landing zones and hospitals along the flight path. If any medical emergency were to arise during the international flight, they had a plan in place for every step of the journey.

In addition, the medics carried an array of over-the-counter medications that help with the typical problems that can arise from international travel, like diarrhea, constipation, cramps, etc. They also carried various trauma supplies in case any falls, cuts, or bruises occurred.

The team was ready for almost anything and had medical plans for what they couldn’t handle. The team had Normandy locals that kept the team updated on the closest hospitals and would help coordinate transport to the hospital if needed. There was no need for any of the contingency plans, thankfully.

Working with WWII veterans isn’t always the easiest ‘patients’ to work with, as they often feel like they are a burden to those around them.

“They don’t seek you out. They don’t complain at all,” Zelk said. “I learned a long time ago that when I go on program, I have to stop and look each veteran in the eye and ask them how they’re doing.”

Zelk explained that she and her team are very intentional with their questions so that the veterans know they are genuine. The medical team establishes trust with everyone under their care through eye contact and getting to know the veterans.

Gavriel “Gavy” Friedson, an EMT volunteer on the Foundation’s medical team, had a different experience than what he is used to. Whether running 911 calls from an ambulance or working in a disaster relief setting, providing over a week of geriatric care isn’t his usual medical function. But ultimately, Friedson was impressed with how well the team worked together.

“We’ve never worked with each other. We all come from different backgrounds. […],” Friedson said. “It’s amazing how well we did and how well we performed. And not just our team, I think the entire BDF team did well.”

Like Friedson, the team’s nurses were functioning in a new environment. Brianna Streeter, a nurse on the Foundation’s medical team, worked out of a backpack during the program, a stark difference from working in a clinic or hospital.

She’s worked on cardiac and neurology floors in hospitals throughout the US, and the tools and medications she needs are usually within reach or just down the hall in a supply closet. But for Streeter, it was well worth it.

“I feel like I was able to really connect with the veteran more just on a general basis, and just who they are as people, and what they’ve been through,” Streeter said. “You know, really take the time to just learn about them.”

That’s not what she’s used to. Streeter often works with really sick people who can’t talk or are in a bad mood because of the severity of their illness or injury. Taking care of the Greatest Generation veterans as they are treated like celebrities is an experience unlike any.

And it’s all for one important mission: taking care of the ones who took care of us.