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Safety in the air starts on the ground

SSM Health supervisor takes part in refueling mission

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August 9, 2023

FOND DU LAC – June 21 will long be a day Emily Hoepfner will remember.

Hoepfner, nursing director at SSM Health St. Agnes Hospital in Fond du Lac, along with several other employers of Wisconsin National Guard airmen, joined the 128th Air Refueling Wing “Boss Lift” event in Milwaukee.

As part of the day, Hoepfner, who oversees several patient care departments at St. Agnes, was able to witness a KC-135 plane refuel two F-16 fighter jets over Lake Superior.

“It was for sure a great day,” Hoepfner said. “I won’t soon forget the experience.”

The purpose of the Boss Lift program – which is sponsored by Employer Support of the Guard and Reserve (ESGR) – is to show appreciation to civilian employers of Wisconsin National Guard members, while also helping to educate those employers about the service, sacrifice and professionalism of their service member employees, all of whom may be called upon at any time to assist with federal and state missions.  

Hoepfner was nominated to partake in the event by Jessica Yogerst Sullivan, a nurse practitioner in the Wound Care services department – which Hoepfner oversees – at St. Agnes.

SSM Health St. Agnes Hospital Nursing Director Emily Hoepfner is all smiles aboard a KC-135 refueling plane. Hoepfner took part in the “Boss Lift” event June 21, which allowed her the opportunity to witness a mid-air refueling of two F-16 fighter jets. Submitted Photo

“I asked Emily in an email if she liked flying,” Sullivan laughed. “Every year, I can nominate my employer to send on the Boss Lift. I previously had a boss who was fearful of flying, so that’s why I asked her that question. I’m happy to nominate other people who would like to go.”

More than just refueling
Though Hoepfner said “the refueling of the F-16 was extremely cool,” it wasn’t the main purpose of the day.

“Shamelessly, I didn’t have a good understanding of the (National) Guard program (before attending the Boss Lift event),” she said.

Better understanding and cooperation is ESGR’s overall goal in facilitating Boss Lifts. 

The ESGR – a Department of Defense awareness program – aims to promote understanding between National Guard and Reserve service members and their civilian employers.

The ESGR program encourages employers to witness firsthand what their employees achieve while on military duty.

“We started with a briefing and heard a program about the Reserve and its importance,” she said. “Being able to hear about that as an employer was worthwhile. They focused a lot on the importance of ensuring we are supporting them.”

Not only is civilian employer support important for the well-being of the soldier or airmen they employ, but it’s also important for Wisconsin’s emergency readiness and the country’s military readiness as a whole.

“We always have (supported our military employees), but I don’t think I understood the full knowledge of why,” she said. “That was a huge takeaway for me.”

More on the day
Hoepfner said the “Boss Lift” event started early at the 128th Air Refueling Wing in Milwaukee.

“We were there bright and early – military time,” she laughed. “After the debriefing, we were taken via bus to a KC-135 refueling plane and learned a bit about it.”

One thing Hoepfner said she found interesting was that almost every extra square inch of the plane is a fuel tank.

“Once I learned that and realized I’m in this pressurized cylinder with lots of fuel, that was interesting,” she said. “I put my trust in their program – they do this every day. We took off out of Milwaukee and flew to Duluth, Minnesota, and over Lake Superior.”
Hoepfner said the F-16s were doing practice runs, dogfighting, etc. over the lake.

“We knew they were coming, but it was still cool,” she said. “It reminded me of a hummingbird – they’d zip in, and the next thing I knew, they were gone and back again.”

To watch the refueling, Hoepfner said there is a boom in the far back of the plane.

St. Agnes Hospital Nursing Director Emily Hoepfner was one of several other employers of Wisconsin National Guard airmen who participated in the 128th Air Refueling Wing “Boss Lift” event. Submitted Photo

“The floor kind of drops out, and there are three cots you can lay on,” she said. “The boom master – as I called him – layed in the middle cot and used a joystick (to maneuver the refueling arm). It was like a real-time video game. We had the opportunity to lay right next to him.”

Hoepfner said next, the F-16 positioned itself to receive fuel.

“The boom master’s job was to make sure the refueling arm hooks up to the F-16,” she said. “It gets refueled and then flies away. I got some fantastic videos. There were about 20 other employers on board that day, so we rotated through and everyone got a chance to watch.” Even watching out the window, the other F-16 (not being refueled) was simply flying along, waving at us. I felt like I could reach out and touch it.”

Hoepfner said she wasn’t nervous watching it all unfold.

“We were flying at about 5,000 feet,” she said. “Looking back at the video I took, they were so close. In hindsight, I said, ‘Yikes,’ but at the time, I wasn’t nervous. I was excited to see the F-16 come in. I could see the pilot, his eyes and the detail on his mask and his face.”

Though exciting, Hoepfner said she realizes this was a “once-in-a-lifetime opportunity.”

“Less than 1% of civilians get to partake in active military events such as this,” she said. “I was honored to take part.”

Serving the nation
Sullivan has served in the United States Air Force for more than 31 years and was recently selected commander for the 115th Medical Group and promoted to the rank of colonel.

As the medical group commander, she is responsible for the organization, training and equipping of 90 active guard and traditional guard medical professionals. 

“I just got promoted last November, and this is the last rank I can put on,” Sullivan, who grew up in Mayville and joined the military at age 17, said. “I have to hold this rank for three years before I can retire, so in 2025, I will retire with 34 years. I’m doing that because others deserve the opportunity. I don’t want to hold up others from being group commander and holding the rank of colonel.”

Sullivan said her family is another reason she plans to retire in less than three years.

“I want to give my family more time,” she said. “My children have known no other life than sharing me with the military. It will be time for me to have one job and my family.”

Sullivan said her dad was in the Wisconsin Air National Guard.

“My mom signed my enlistment papers because I wasn’t old enough to do it,” she said. “I started my career as a medic and continued to school as a nurse practitioner.”

Jessica Yogerst Sullivan

Sullivan began her SSM Health career at Waupun Memorial Hospital before moving to St. Agnes Hospital a little more than a year ago.

“I’ve been in the SSM Health System for 26 years,” she said. “I go on annual training for two weeks almost every year. I’ve been to Nicaragua twice, South Korea and Afghanistan.”

Sullivan said SSM Health “has been very gracious about letting me go on these trips.”

“I’ve never had any issues,” she said. “Having said that, it’s not necessarily easy to backfill when National Guard members leave. While leaving my home and loved ones for months on end is hard enough, it is reassuring to both myself and my family knowing I have the support of SSM Health and my job waiting for me when I come back from deployments and annual trainings.”

Hoepfner, who has been with St. Agnes since 2007, had nothing but praise for Sullivan.

“We are blessed to have Jessica in our Wound Care service area,” she said. “I value Jessica and all of our SSM Health team members that serve our country. The ESGR provided an informative and exciting day that reinforced the importance of supporting our team members that belong to our reserve forces.”

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