As the country prepares to honor its military service veterans this Monday, we should be mindful that those who served this country did so in a variety of capacities.
Moorhead resident Annette Williams chose to serve as a hospital corpsman in the U.S. Navy. In the Navy, a hospital/clinic corpsman is equivalent to a nurse even though graduation from a civilian nursing school is still required after leaving the military.
After graduating from Mississippi Valley State University with a Bachelor of Science degree in biology, Williams spent over 13 years in service to her country at various facilities around the continental U.S., Hawaii and even a humanitarian mission into Haiti after the earthquake there in 2010.
The Naval Hospital Corps School located at the Naval Station, Great Lakes, Illinois was one of her first stops and the site of her initial training. That school was the Navy’s only basic hospital corpsman school for nearly a century before it closed in 2011 and the training center was moved to Fort Sam Houston in Antonio, Texas.
Williams also spent time in Jacksonville, Florida—Norfolk, Virginia—and Millington, Tennessee. However, she said that the mission to Haiti was likely one of the most rewarding of her career. “We had just returned back to Norfolk, Virginia from a seven-month deployment trying to readjust to being back home. Then the earthquake hit Haiti,” she said.
It was January 2010 when Williams and her shipmates aboard the USS Bataan LHD-5 received the 48-hour ready for sea notice. She said it meant they were heading right back out to sea. Williams said Navy and Marines crew were deployed. “We embarked on a journey that some of us could (only) imagine seeing on TV.”
She described the devastation left in the wake of the earthquake as harrowing. “It broke my heart into,” she said. Williams said, as imagined, the tragedy really took a toll on the people in Haiti. “While there we took care of the patients of different ages. I remember caring for a child who had a hydrocephalus,” said Williams.
She described the condition as being a buildup of fluid in the cavities deep within the brain where the excess fluid increases the size of those cavities, medically known as ventricles, and puts pressure on the brain. She said the child’s head alone weighed roughly 70 pounds and she and another person would have to lift the child just for her to hold him.
Williams recalled her own emotional state as she cared for the child. “I remember looking into his eyes and seeing and feeling his pain and knowing the only thing I could do for him was sing a lullaby and give him a body for comfort.”
That was just one of the child patients she encountered. She also talked about another child who had not only lost his parents, but also one of his arms. She said, “He had touched every heart onboard with his smile and laughter.”
Although a great deal of the care they administered happened onboard ship, Williams also had the opportunity to venture into what she calls the ground zone to assist with helping the locals with cleanup efforts. “Walking up to the camp where the locals were living I couldn’t believe my eyes. People were living in tents and sleeping on the bare ground. They had no drinking water, so we would pass out bottles of water for them to drink.”
Williams said they also assisted with debris removal so the rebuilding could eventually start. “Some of the corpsman had opportunities to help deliver babies at a local clinic while there. We all played our part whether it was small or large, it didn’t matter. We were there to help the people of Haiti.”
Being able to spend that time in those relief efforts could be considered the catalyst that sparked Williams’ compassion for people since leaving the service. “To be able to assist in the Haiti efforts gave me a new outlook. It’s a constant reminder to always be thankful for what God has done for us and is doing. Never take life for granted,” she said.
Since returning home to her native Moorhead in 2015, Williams has been employed with the Social Security office and spends a great deal of her time assisting other veterans. According to her, she gets frequent calls from former shipmates asking for her assistance and she reaches out to others as well.
Williams is an E-5 Petty Officer Second Class, who has earned surface and air warfare insignia and encourages people to enlist to serve their country, but cautions, “It’s a big step to join.” She said don’t join thinking that it is going to be easy because life is never easy. “It’s hard work, it’s a rewarding job that provides honor, you learn discipline and determination and you’ll (gain) friends for life.”
Williams is the daughter of Maebell and John Nero of Moorhead and has a nine-year-old daughter named Amber.