Travis Levin wasn’t supposed to be on the same flight as Felix Contreras to Al Udeid Air Base in Qatar.

Both were headed to the Middle East, but it was just a coincidence that the two UNC Greensboro School of Nursing alumni ended up on the same Boeing C-17 together.

Levin, who’s in the North Carolina Air National Guard, decided to jump on a flight that was leaving Ramstein Air Base in Germany for Qatar. As he was boarding, he heard someone call his name.

“When I saw him get on with his equipment, he had a mask on, so I didn’t know it was Travis,” said Contreras, who’s a first lieutenant in the U.S. Air Force. “I just yelled, ‘Travis!’”

When Levin turned around, he immediately recognized Contreras, even though they hadn’t seen each other since they graduated from UNCG with their Bachelor of Science in Nursing (BSN) degrees in 2019. They had gone through the School of Nursing’s Veterans Access Program together.

A massive evacuation mission reunited them on the other side of the globe.

Levin and Contreras have spent the past few weeks stationed in Qatar. They’re using the training they learned in the School of Nursing to help treat large numbers of U.S. citizens, allies, and service members who were evacuated from Afghanistan as part of Operation Allies Refuge.

“I guess the overall end result is that we’re doing something good for people that actually really need it at this time, and they’re very grateful for being helped, whether it’s as small as getting a Tylenol to sending them off so they can get treated at the clinic,” Contreras said. “It’s just the little things that matter.”

As an Air Force nurse, Contreras is part of a large medical team that has examined Afghans who were flown to Al Udeid Air Base. He has treated people with a wide range of medical issues, ranging from dehydration to pregnancies.

Levin, meanwhile, is serving as a flight medic in Qatar. As flights have come in and out of Kabul, he has helped get Afghans and service members in need of medical attention airlifted to other locations.

He volunteered for the mission.

Levin said he received a memo last month from the military looking for volunteers to go to “an undisclosed location” for “an indefinite amount of time.” From watching the national news, he figured the mission was to help with the evacuation in Afghanistan.

Levin said he has been trying to pick up as many missions as possible before he’s scheduled to leave the North Carolina Air National Guard in December.

He decided to sign up for Operation Allies Refuge after seeing the heartbreaking images of Afghans clinging to a C-17 as it left Kabul.

“With this mission particularly, I was just inspired by the crisis and the need that was out there. And my job, I do aeromedical evacuation, and so it’s what’s needed right now. This is a big evacuation, like a big airlift mission going on, so I figured my skill set is what’s needed over here. So I think I’d best be utilized, and so that’s kind of what inspired to get out here.”

Travis Levin

Helping in the Middle East runs in Levin’s family. Thirty years ago, his parents met while serving as Army helicopter pilots during the Persian Gulf War.

Levin had initially planned on becoming a physical therapist, but he instead enlisted in the North Carolina Air National Guard after graduating from high school in 2013. He wanted to work in the medical field in some way.

“When I joined, the recruiter was actually like ‘Well, the two medic positions that we have, you can either be a clinic medic or a flight medic,’” Levin said. “And so I chose flight medic. It sounded so much cooler than clinic medic.”

Contreras worked as a medic before he was accepted into the School of Nursing’s Veterans Access Program. After graduation, he was promoted to an officer in the Air Force and started working as a nurse.

Contreras said his goal is to soon go back to school and become a certified registered nurse anesthetist in the Air Force.

After running into each other on the flight to Qatar, Contreras and Levin got another opportunity last week to catch up during dinner at Al Udeid Air Base. They talked for a few minutes about work and their immediate plans.

“It’s cool how we can see each other in a whole different environment, which was nursing school, to seeing each other in operations,” Contreras said. “I would’ve never thought to see him on that flight, and he was on my flight.”

The School of Nursing launched the Veterans Access Program in 2015 to provide medically trained veterans access and specialized support to obtain their BSN. Dr. Susan Letvak, who served as a nurse and a lieutenant commander in the U.S. Navy, oversees the program. Read here for more information. 

Story by Alex Abrams, School of Nursing

Photography provided by Travis Levin