Photo courtesy John Bourges
From L.E.S. to Iraq and back, he’s ready for more
By Albert Amateau
John Bourges, raised on the Lower East Side, has packed a lot of adventure into 54 years.
A New York City detective who became a registered nurse after retiring, then joined the U.S. Army at the age of 50 and spent a year in a hospital unit in Iraq, Lieutenant John Bourges is still ready for more.
“I haven’t a clue about what I’ll do next,” he said in a telephone interview last week. “My commitment in the Army Reserves goes to 2014 and if they call me again to active duty I would do it in a heartbeat.”
Bourges went to Seward Park High School and worked summer jobs in Greenwich Village, including one stint as a doorman when he was 17 at Trude Heller’s, the fashionable club on Sixth Ave. and Ninth St. that closed in 1979.
“The city was opening up police hiring after the financial crisis freeze when I was working in a small family business,” he said. “But the business wasn’t for me. I was 22, so I applied for the Police Academy and graduated in 1979 in the first class after the freeze,” he recalled. Bourges’s first N.Y.P.D. assignment was as a patrolman on the Upper West Side in a turbulent era when crack became the drug of choice in troubled single-room-occupancy hotels.
In the mid-1980’s, he was assigned to Washington Heights where he worked in Manhattan North Narcotics and became a detective in the 34th Precinct, which then extended from 155th St. to the northern end of Manhattan. He was the homicide coordinator for the southern part of the precinct.
“I met my wife when she was working as a paralegal for the Special Narcotics District Attorney,” Bourges said. “She used to draw up the warrants for drug searches.”
It was a dangerous time in the late 1980’s — three police officers were killed in the Manhattan North command between 1987 and ’90, Bourges recalled.
Bourges and his wife moved to Putnam County and were raising their daughter. He also earned a degree from John Jay College of Criminal Justice. Around 2000, Bourges said, he had to think about whether to retire or stay on “until it was too late to get any other job.”
He retired in 2001, a couple of weeks before the Sept. 11 attack.
“It was after 20 years and 18 days. I was 45. I gave them the odd 18 days,” Bourges quipped. He had been thinking about entering the healthcare field and got jobs, first as a security guard and then as a patient-care technician in White Plains. The work appealed to him and he applied for the two-year nursing program at Westchester Community College. The school was beginning to train nurses in specific areas, and he joined the program for intensive-care nursing.
“I learned from some of the best nurses that I ever met,” he said. After completing the program, he sat for the exam for his certificate as a critical-care nurse. He passed and took a full-time job as emergency room nurse at Putnam County Hospital near his home.
Then, in 2005, a recruiter called him about joining as an officer in the U.S. Army Reserve. Bourges applied but an administrative rule made him ineligible.
“One night I was watching C-SPAN,” Bourges said. “A three-star general was talking about the need for reserve officers because of the war in Iraq and Afghanistan. I wrote him and told him about the rule that made me ineligible and suggested they abolish it.”
Two months later, the same recruiter who first approached him called and told him the rule had been repealed.
“It was 2006 and I joined when I was 50 years old,” Bourges said. “In my Army career I met only one guy older than me when he joined. But he was a thoracic surgeon — a skill the Army doesn’t often get a chance to recruit.”
Bourges estimated that about 10 percent of the nurses in his civilian career were male, but the percentage was higher among military nurses.
He went to a hospital base in San Antonio, Tex., for basic officer training and then was posted to a hospital unit in West Hartford, Conn., in June 2007.
“The first day I was there I was deployed to a hospital in Anbar province in Iraq, west of Baghdad. It was a time when local tribal leaders were coming to the American side,” he recalled. Nevertheless, there were a lot of combat casualties, especially burns. “When a bomb explodes it usually burns the victims.” Bourges explained. The injured soldiers were mostly the same age as his daughter, he observed.
Bourges returned home in June 2008 and has been working in emergency rooms in Westchester and Putnam hospitals. He still fulfills his standard Army Reserve obligation of two weeks a year and one weekend a month after his year of active service.
Of his adventurous life, he said, “I’ve been truly blessed. We’re supposed to do what we can for someone else and the rest will follow. I thank God for my blessings and ask if He could arrange for me to go to Afghanistan.”
Bourges’s experience in Iraq was a high point.
“It’s a cradle of civilization between those two great rivers,” he said. “I’ll never forget the people I met there who still need us while they get their country in order. I think there will be a military presence there for a while,” he said.