From being a young woman in Tauranga to a medical officer in Iraq, a suggestion to join the army has one woman never looking back.

For New Zealand Army captain Kelsi Nichols, who had long wanted to become a military doctor, serving as a medical officer in Iraq's Camp Taji is something special.

"It's an honour and a challenge to deploy overseas to look after our countrymen and also our coalition partners," Nichols said.

"We strive to provide the best care possible and it's always nice to hear about positive outcomes and expressions of gratitude from patients."


Her first eight weeks at Taji Medical Treatment Facility, where she worked with three other NZDF personnel and 22 Australian troops, were hectic because of a number of emergency cases and medical evacuations.

"Sometimes we get notified by radio that there is an emergency, like when a coalition soldier shot himself in the leg by mistake out on the range," she said.

"At other times patients turn up on the doorstep, like when another coalition soldier came in looking unwell. We did some tests and found out he was having a heart attack."

She loved the people she was working with and was looking forward to spending four more months with them.

But it wasn't just an adjustment to the hot temperatures, which could reach 50C during the day, but also to carrying a loaded pistol, even at work.

"It's one of the realities of working in Iraq," she said.

During her downtime, Nichols still kept a busy schedule.

She runs three evening classes a week on swing dancing and salsa for troops at the camp and teaches knitting and crocheting to personnel who are keen to learn.


She supports the newly-formed Taji Sisterhood, a support group for female military personnel and civilian contractors working at the camp.

"I also enjoy mentoring our medics and nurses," she said.

"It's pretty cool to see the difference it makes to their confidence when seeing primary care patients."

Before she deployed to Iraq in May, Nichols was based at the Royal New Zealand Air Force Base Auckland in Whenuapai and was training in aviation medicine.

Born in Te Aroha, a small farming town in eastern Waikato, Nichols moved to Tauranga when she started high school.

Encouraged by her stepfather, Brigadier Evan Williams, she enlisted in the Army in 2009 at the end of her second year at medical school.

Through the army's Medical Officer Cadet Scheme, the rest of her studies were funded at the University of Auckland in exchange for a return of service.

She graduated in 2012 and worked for a year each at Whakatāne Hospital and Taranaki Base Hospital, before being commissioned as an army officer in 2015.

"I was pretty keen to join because of the opportunities to travel, gain experience overseas and train in things that I'd never do in the civilian world," Nichols said.

"The physical fitness that gets woven into our work and the camaraderie that we all share were the two other things that attracted me to a career in the Army."