Over an 11-year career as an Air Force intelligence analyst, Kristel Hallsson worked on bases in South Korea, Iraq, Italy and Afghanistan.
Now, the Snohomish native is back in her home state for a new challenge: medical school.
At 37, Hallsson is the oldest member of her 60-person class at the University of Washington in Spokane, housed on the Gonzaga University campus.
Originally, she never planned to become a doctor. Her dad was in the Air Force, but finished his service before she was born. Growing up, she loved the military, she said – jets especially. She enlisted as soon as she finished high school and went to basic training at 19.
“It was exactly what I should have done,” she said.
She chose a generalist career track and quickly ended up in intelligence analysis. Her position was a “jack-of-all-trades” job, she said.
“They teach you a tiny bit of everything and then they can send you anywhere,” she said.
After six months in technical school, she was stationed at Wright-Patterson Air Force Base outside of Dayton, Ohio, and deployed to a NATO base near Naples, Italy, in 2000.
She’d been there about a month when the base received the news of the Sept. 11 attacks in New York City. Most other personnel were from other NATO countries, so the attacks felt further away. Still, the Italian federal police beefed up security.
“We went from just having one guy checking IDs at the front gate to having three guys who stood there with automatic weapons,” she said.
At the time, she knew the attack was a big deal, but didn’t foresee it leading to a prolonged military presence in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
“How do you attack a terrorist group? It was kind of unheard of at the time,” she said. “I don’t think we realized how deep we were getting until Iraq.”
As an analyst, Hallsson reviewed information like satellite images for useful intelligence. She still can’t say much about the work she did or what she was looking for, but said most of the time it was an eight-hour office job that just happened to be on a base.
“I don’t think it’s what people imagine,” she said.
She worked in Nebraska with the 20th Intelligence Squadron, which provided information for the initial cruise missile attack on Iraq in March 2003.
From there, she went to South Korea; then to Aurora, Colorado. She took advantage of the four days on, four days off schedule to go snowboarding in the Rockies during the week, when lines were short.
In 2009, she was deployed to Afghanistan, where she worked on operations for a mission, listening to radio traffic. She said she can’t talk about the details, but something went wrong and two men died during the operation.
“It was the worst feeling in the world. It was like all of the air was sucked out of the room. To be listening a few hundred miles away and not be able to do anything,” she said.
That night got Hallsson thinking about changing her career. She was itching to try a new job, something that would have been hard to do within the Air Force.
“Ultimately, I want to be the person who helps save somebody else,” she said.
She thought about being a paramedic. In high school, she’d loved learning about anatomy and physiology, and while she got a bachelor’s degree online during her Air Force career, she wanted to go to a brick-and-mortar college and study pre-med.
“I thought, I had a GI Bill and I’d really like to go to college,” she said. Her first attempt was at WSU in 2010. She was 30 by then and taking 100-level classes with 18-year-olds. It wasn’t a good fit.
“It’s kind of a party school,” she said. So she took some time off to work, then continued at Central Washington University, majoring in biology and minoring in chemistry.
She has family in both Everett and Okanogan and loved Ellensberg for its proximity to both groups and for its size. Her time there solidified her desire to live in a rural area or smaller city in eastern or central Washington.
In 2015, she applied to medical schools along the West Coast, but knew it was a long shot with no medical experience. When she was rejected, she started volunteering at Tacoma General Hospital, then got a job as a hospital scribe in Everett. The following year, she applied again and got an interview for UW’s Targeted Rural and Underserved Track, or TRUST.
She interviewed in February in Spokane. A few days later, back in Everett, she saw on her Fitbit that she had a phone call from the man who interviewed her. She knew that meant she’d been accepted before she answered the phone.
“I was so excited I cried,” she said. Her interviewer was trying to sell her on coming to the UW program, knowing other students would have multiple medical schools to choose from. But she told him she didn’t need to be convinced.
“You’d be insane not to go to UW. It’s one of the best schools in the country,” she said.
Career arc comes full circle
Many people don’t realize the university has a presence in Spokane at all, though the medical students here typically choose Spokane over Seattle. On the weekends, they’re often doing community service, staffing the Union Gospel Mission or cleaning up the Spokane River.
“We’re trying to get out in the community as much as possible,” she said.
Classes started after Labor Day, and each student in the rural and underserved medicine program is assigned to a rural site. Hers is in Moses Lake.
After the fast-paced, ever-changing nature of military work, four-hour lectures are a challenge, Hallsson admits. But she said the skills she gained in the Air Force will translate well to caring for patients.
“In the military, you learn a lot of skills like making decisions comfortably within a small amount of time,” she said.
She’s interested in both obstetrics and emergency medicine now, but knows she wants to stay in Washington to practice.
Most of her classmates are about 25 and just a few years out of college, though they find plenty to talk about – when Hallsson isn’t busy walking her dogs along the Centennial Trail.
They’re “just mind-blowing young people” who have done “incredible things,” she said of her classmates.
She’s still unpacking her Spokane Valley apartment, though her dogs, Indi and Bena, are right at home. The pair are sister cavalier King Charles spaniels who have seen Hallsson through the last six years as she re-entered civilian life, pursued a bachelor’s degree and applied to medical school.
“If it wasn’t for the dogs, I wouldn’t be here,” she said.