Tribute to soldier

A Fallen Soldier memorial for Capt. Maria I. Ortiz, clinical head nurse at Kirk Army Health Clinic at Aberdeen Proving Ground, was on display for a service held in her honor. Ortiz volunteered to be deployed with the 28th Combat Support Hospital in Iraq as the head nurse for the intermediate care ward. She was killed in Baghdad July 10. (Sun photo by Kenneth K. Lam / July 18, 2007)

An Army nurse who spent 16 years tending to soldiers and volunteered to serve in Iraq was remembered for her infectious smile and self-sacrifice in a memorial ceremony yesterday at Aberdeen Proving Ground.

Family members, friends and colleagues filled the Main Post Chapel to remember Capt. Maria Ines Ortiz, 40, who was killed on July 10 in a mortar attack in the Green Zone of Baghdad. She was the first Army nurse to die in combat since the Vietnam War, military officials said.

Before leaving for Iraq in September last year, Captain Ortiz served as the chief nurse of general medicine at the Kirk U.S. Army Health Clinic at the proving ground for a year and a half.

"She was serving brothers and sisters that needed help," said Captain Ortiz's identical twin, Maria Luisa Medina. "It wasn't Iraqis or other country's people. It was people that she could help. She was a person with a mission and a purpose."

Captain Ortiz, of Camden, N.J., who grew up in Puerto Rico, was remembered yesterday as a nurse with the radiant smile who always welcomed patients, even as they trickled in at closing hour, and checked up on them long after they left her care.

"We never saw her without a smile," said Martin Pate, who works at the Kimbrough Ambulatory Care Center. "She volunteered because she wanted to make a difference."

At the chapel, a fallen-soldier memorial with combat boots, helmet and replica of a M-16 rifle were placed near a photo of the captain. Her fiance, mother, sister and nephew sat in the front row.

"She went voluntarily to Iraq," said Sherry Walters, a former colleague who is a pediatrics nurse at the Kirk Health Clinic. "She felt that it was her calling. She really wanted to be there, and felt it was her duty more as a soldier than a nurse."

In April, Captain Ortiz spent her 40th birthday at her Edgewood home with her family and fiance, Juan Casiano, during a 10-day visit.

"She came home and spent time with the family," said Mr. Casiano. "She cut the grass, put the mulch in and cooked the entire 10 days she was here. She really valued being home."

Mr. Casiano, 44, a retired military officer, and Captain Ortiz had planned to get married after she returned from Iraq.

Captain Ortiz had been assigned to the 28th Combat Support Hospital, 3rd Command where worked as the head nurse for the intermediate care ward, where she attended to Iraqi civilians and American soldiers.

As of late January, there had been 90 medical personnel killed in combat in Iraq and Afghanistan, said Jaime Cavazos spokesman for the Army Medical Command. Three medical personnel from the Kirk U.S. Army Health Clinic are serving in Iraq.

In 1991, Captain Ortiz enlisted in the Army Reserve in Puerto Rico as a medical surgical nurse. Her military career took her around the world, including Honduras and Korea. In 1995, she met Mr. Casiano while overseas at Camp Casey in Korea. After losing touch for years, they bumped into each other at the Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington in 2000.

"The first thing I saw was the light," Mr. Casiano said. "She was a woman with a sense of purpose."

Captain Ortiz will be buried in Arlington National Cemetery on Aug. 9, family members said.

madison.park@baltsun.com