Twentynine Palms -- On March 16, 2018, Candace Wimbish was in the right place at the right time. It was an ordinary Friday and Wimbish was driving down U.S. Highway 62 to attend a farewell event for a fellow soldier in Yucca Valley, Calif. Then, in the blink of an eye, a tow truck made a sharp left turn in front of her vehicle.
“My initial reaction was that I almost hit the truck,” said Capt. Candace Wimbish, Chief, Mojave Branch Veterinary Services, U.S. Army Public Health Command, Fort Hood, Texas. “But then I quickly realized the truck had actually plowed into the motorcyclist riding right in front of me.”
Without a second thought, Wimbish jumped out of her car and rushed to the scene of the accident.
“I was in disbelief,” Wimbish said. “I got out of my truck and the man was in a very severe situation. I was able to see the bike, but I had to look around until I found a large black pile of rubble moaning 10-15 feet away from the bike. He was losing a lot of blood very quickly and had very severe wounds to his left leg and arm.”
Although Wimbish’s quick reaction sprouted from the veterinary training she received in the Army, the seed that led her there was planted long ago.
“I grew up in a small town in Central Texas, College Station, with my parents and two younger twin sisters,” Wimbish said. “We had a farm with a lot of animals such as horses, cattle, dogs, cats, geese and catfish.”
Wimbish grew up in a manner that many children don’t get to experience. Her life consisted of school during the day and playing outside or tending to the animals during the evening. There were many things that Wimbish enjoyed about living on a farm, but spending time with the animals and being in the sunshine and dirt are what Wimbish loved most about it. Even from a young age, she would tell her parents that she wanted to be a veterinarian.
“In the late 1980’s or early 1990’s, there was a huge crash in the farming economy in Texas,” Wimbish said. “So we were forced to sell the ranch and move to Northern Texas. From there I lived a classic suburban life.”
The move from her beloved farm wasn’t the only major change Wimbish experienced. During her uprooting, her parents finalized their divorce and shortly after that, her father passed away.
“My father passed away when I was 12,” Wimbish said. “He and I were very close so when he died it was tough, but I didn’t know life as anything different so I got through it.”
By the time Wimbish was 14 years old, with her pet cat as her only roommate, she rented an apartment and began life on her own due to irreconcilable issues at home. Although Wimbish was only a freshman in high school, she juggled a number of odd jobs such as an administrative assistant and a waitress at a bar to help pay her bills while maintaining the status of a full-time student. The average high school experience and social life was nonexistent for Wimbish. Because she spent most of her time working, attending homecoming dances or prom was out of the question. Even though she was young, most places didn’t question Wimbish’s age because she came to work and did what she had to.
At the time, graduating high school was Wimbish’s greatest accomplishment. As high school drew to a close, Wimbish wasn’t sure if she would graduate on time. So when she was able to walk across the stage in front of all her peers she was relieved that she made it.
“When I walked across the stage, I thought ‘holy cow, I actually did it!’” Wimbish said.
Following her graduation, Wimbish attended junior college and also found a nearby veterinary hospital that hired her to start as a receptionist. Over time, Wimbish began her on-the-job training as a veterinary technician in the veterinary emergency department.
“I thought that being a veterinarian was what I wanted to do, but I wasn’t sure if I could handle the heart break and trauma,” Wimbish said. “I like to just jump right into the deep end of things, so I started working in the veterinary emergency hospital to see the worst it could get. It turned out that I loved it.”
Wimbish initially started working for the veterinary hospital because they offered off-hours that coincided with her school schedule. She would work the overnight shift and go to school during the day. The intensity of the job is what kept Wimbish hooked.
“It wasn’t easy,” Wimbish said. “But I didn’t know life as anything else. I did what I had to do while keeping a positive outlook on all the things I was able to experience, not the things I was missing out on.”
As time went on, new opportunities were presented to her. A fellow veterinarian introduced and mentored Wimbish in wildlife rehabilitation. With her new found interest, Wimbish discovered a wildlife for release rehabilitation program outside of Seattle, WA., that helped rehabilitate the wildlife and educate the community on how to coexist with the local species. Throughout the course of eight years, Wimbish balanced schooling and traveled to Seattle before completing her associate’s degree.
While living in Washington, Wimbish attended a fourth of July fireworks show at Naval Station Everett, WA., with her now husband. As they were waiting for the show to start, the wind picked up and she became cold. They relocated to a spot just on the other side of the building.
“When the fireworks started, the building started barking,” Wimbish said. “I looked over and saw the sign that said ‘caution, military working dogs kennel.’ It was very fortuitous that we moved to the other side of that building. That night, I started researching about military veterinarians.”
At that time, Wimbish felt she had finally found her path. At the end of July her rent house lease closed and she moved back to Texas to help tend to her sick grandmother and study at University of Texas Arlington to complete her four years of undergraduate education in biochemistry.
“To become a vet, you don’t need a specific undergrad, you just need to have all the prerequisites completed,” Wimbish said. “I’m a bit of a science nerd so I chose biochemistry.”
To help her afford her college tuition, Wimbish reached out to her Native American tribe for a grant. In addition to the assistance she received from her tribe, she enlisted in the Texas State Guard which provided her with some tuition assistance.
“I chose the Army over the other branches because it’s the only one that offers the military occupation specialty of veterinarian,” Wimbish said. “My school was extremely understanding when I got pulled away from my studies to take care of my military obligations.”
While studying biochemistry, she deployed to southern Texas in response to Hurricanes Ike and Gustav. During her response to Hurricane Ike, she was in charge of running a shelter for the pets of the evacuees.
“During Hurricane Katrina, people refused to leave their homes without their pets,” Wimbish said. “So shortly after Katrina, legislation was passed to allow people to bring their pets to shelters. Three years later when Ike hit Texas, there was no plan. Evacuees boarded busses and arrived at shelters with their pets, but no place to put them. During Ike, it was the most exhausting time of my life but also one of the most rewarding.”
In order for Wimbish to care for all the animals in need, she needed more man power than just herself. The response was collaborative with the local county. They were granted permission to use county fairground to place the animals. Next, man power was provided from minimum security prisoners who had been on their best behavior and were willing to step up in a time of need.
“It was amazing,” Wimbish said. “We had military uniforms working next to men and women in striped jump suits. It was neat to see everyone chip in during a crisis, regardless of their background.”
Shortly after the responses to the natural disasters, Wimbish enrolled in the Army’s Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (ROTC) while completing her undergraduate degree. Her enrollment allowed her to participate in the Simultaneous Membership Program (SMP). The membership program is a two year course that allows you to be mentored by a unit officer and requires the member to drill with their guard unit once a month. Upon completion, the member will receive their commission as a second lieutenant in the Army. Wimbish only participated in ROTC for a year until she was accepted for veterinary school. She was then awarded the Health Professions Scholarship, which helped fund half of her veterinary education. Her acceptance into this program allowed her appointed place of duty to be veterinary school until she became an active duty service member.
After completing her four years of veterinary school, Wimbish landed an internship at Fort Hood-Army base, Texas. Not many bases have cavalry horses or a stray animal facility and this knowledge factored into Wimbish’s decision to accept the internship at Fort Hood. Little did she know that her decision meant she would be getting very little sleep for the next year. Not only was Wimbish spending plenty of long hours tending to the care of the animals but she was also helping the stray animals get adopted by military families and families in town.
“There were four interns including myself,” Wimbish said. “It was a very long year but we learned so much and I have experiences I will carry with me forever.”
Once her year at Fort Hood came to an end, Wimbish received orders in the summer of 2015 to work aboard the Combat Center and be the veterinarian on base.
As a part of Wimbish’s job aboard the Combat Center, she manages the food and animal mission. She is responsible for providing 24/7 comprehensive routine and veterinary medical care for military working dogs stationed here as well as the dogs on rotational training.
While serving as an active duty service member, Wimbish also takes one to two weekends every month to work at an animal hospital in Los Angeles, Calif., to maintain her clinical skills.
“A military veterinarian’s job is not just seeing patients,” Wimbish said. “It’s a lot of managerial, admin, training, and food protection. We spend a lot of time inspecting commissary and food establishments on base. Since clinical medicine is only a third of what I do, working at a civilian facility helps me to maintain my clinical proficiency.”
In addition to her veterinary-related duties, Wimbish and her team support the food defense and safety mission for all food service locations on base. They are in charge of monitoring the cleanliness and operational capability of the facilities to ensure the food is safe for consumption to all service members and families.
“The first couple of weeks I was here I wasn’t sure where I landed,” Wimbish said. “There was so much sand and it was terrible. I feel much differently today. The unit and team I have here is amazing. The food and animal mission makes it feel like it doesn’t matter what uniform you have on. It is one team, one mission, regardless of the military branch we support.”
The one team mentality transferred over to Wimbish’s quick decision making on March 16. Since she had three co-workers riding with her, she put them to work when coming to the aid of the injured motorcyclist. Some of the training she conducts with her military working dog handlers includes how to make a tourniquet with what you have on you.
“My first thought was ‘I don’t have my gear,’” Wimbish said. “So, I used my belt to slow the bleeding. I remember telling him, ‘buddy this is going to hurt a lot.’”
Wimbish’s first tourniquet didn’t stop the arterial bleeding, but slowed it down enough for her to make a second tourniquet out of her fellow soldier’s belt. That second tourniquet was enough to stop the bleeding until the paramedics arrived. Emergency Medical Services was able to stabilize the biker and air lift him to Desert Regional Hospital in Palm Springs, Calif.
“I don’t remember thinking through my actions, I just knew that’s what I had to do,” Wimbish said. “We train for muscle memory and a deployed environment. Many folks never deploy, but you still need those skills. Once the gentleman was taken care of, I was still stunned and went to the farewell event to chow down on some pancakes.”
Wimbish has orders for a permanent change of station to a civil affairs unit with U.S. Army Special Operations Command. She will serve as an on-call subject matter expert for questions on animal health and disease prevention. Wimbish will function as a deployable asset to train the operators and partner with host-nation subject matter experts. Wimbish thoroughly enjoys teaching and is looking forward to her new place of duty.
“I often know the questions the will ask before they ask or I know when they don’t understand something,” Wimbish said. “It’s neat to see their eyes light up when the information clicks.”
The Army has a lot to offer Wimbish. She has no immediate plan for after the military or how long she would like to be in.
“I’m still having fun and there is a lot of good I can do,” Wimbish said. “I have no plan of getting out soon and I don’t plan on slowing down.”