Called to Serve, Dedicated to Help

She'd always wanted to join the U.S. Navy. But one thing stood between her and her dream.

by - Posted on Sep 1, 2005

A female sailor in a sea of male sailors

Even in late September, the Florida sun can be brutal. I made my way across the parking lot, wishing I could move more quickly than my 270 pounds would let me. At the door of the Navy recruiting station, I stopped for a minute. Partly to catch my breath—walking winded me these days. Mostly, to work up my nerve to go inside and find out what it took to join the United States Navy.

It was a dream I'd had since high school back in Waynesville, North Carolina. I couldn't explain it, really. It wasn't like I came from a military background or knew any sailors. I just felt this urge I couldn't ignore. I went so far as to sign up for my school's Junior ROTC program. No sharp Navy blues for me, though. They didn't make them big enough. I had to get my uniform custom tailored and listen to my classmates' jokes about hiring a tent maker. That hurt.

It would hurt even more, I knew, to be told to my face that the Navy didn't want me. Maybe that was why, after graduation, I buried my dream the same way I did other things that were painful—with food. And I went on with my life. I became a medical assistant, moved to Florida and bought a house. Not bad for a 25-year-old.

Except lately I'd been feeling unsettled. Like I was meant to do more with my life. I worked with the youth group at church, all the while praying for guidance myself. I started studying to become a registered nurse anesthetist. I even tried—half-heartedly, I admit—to tackle my lifelong weight problem, and got myself down a little from my heaviest, 302 pounds, size 26. Still something was missing.

Nine days earlier, on September 11, 2001, I was driving to class when I heard the news over the car radio. The World Trade Center and the Pentagon had been attacked. At school, I crowded around the TV in the lounge with the other students. I stared at the horrifying images on the screen, the tragedy unfolding. You can't just stand here and watch, I heard a voice inside say. You have to stand up for your country and do something. Join the Navy.

That couldn't be right. I had a job, a home, college classes. The Navy didn't make uniforms big enough for me back in high school, and I was even bigger now. That dream died long ago for a reason, I told myself.

Yet it kept gnawing at me, that sense that I was supposed to do something more. Like this afternoon when I got stuck in traffic. I bowed my head for a moment at the steering wheel. "God, show me what you want me to do," I asked. "I just don't know anymore."

I looked up. The first thing I saw was the bumper sticker on the car in front of me. "Pray for our country."

It was like I was being called into service, drafted by a Higher Power. I knew what I had to do. Instead of heading home, I drove to the Navy recruiting station nearby.

And here I was, standing at the door. Now or never. I pushed it open and stepped inside. I tried to ignore the posters showing fit, strong young men and women in uniform and went up to one of the recruiters.

I took a deep breath. Then I said it: "I'd like to find out the requirements for enlisting in the Navy."

The man laughed. Right in my face. "Lose a hundred pounds," he said. "Then maybe we'll talk to you."

I turned around and stalked out of there, fired up like you wouldn't believe. That recruiter tried to kill it, I'd tried to bury it myself, but my dream wasn't dead. And now, so help me God, I was going to make it real!

As soon as I got home, I picked up the phone and called the recruiting station. A different sailor spoke to me this time and answered my questions.

"I'd like to sit down and talk over the options with you," he said. "Why don't you come on in?"

What was the best way to put it? "Well, I'm a little chunky," I said.

"Not a problem! How tall are you?"

Five foot seven, I told him.

"At your height, you just need to weigh less than 173 pounds to qualify for the entrance physical."

Not a problem? Little did he know I had to lose 100 pounds to get there.

If I needed motivation to lose weight, I had it now. I got off the phone. "God, I'm making a promise to you and to myself," I said. "I'm setting a goal. I will qualify for that entrance physical by my birthday." February 26. Just five months away.

With my medical background, I knew the keys to losing weight and keeping it off were diet and exercise. I started with my diet, changed it completely. No more processed stuff. No more junk. Only natural foods and whole grains. If God didn't make it, I wasn't going to put it in my body.

I broke my habit of just grabbing things off the shelves at the grocery store and throwing them into my cart. Instead I read labels carefully and paid close attention to the nutrients in everything I ate.

Pretty soon I was buying smaller clothes every two weeks. Time to add exercise to my regimen.

I signed up at a Gold's Gym near my house. The owner, Tony, and I got to talking, and I told him about my dream. "Can you be tough on me and whip me into shape?" I asked. "Boot camp's going to be hard, and I don't want to be coddled."

Tony grinned. "I like your attitude!" We'll get you in shape. I'll be the meanest I've ever been, if that's what it takes."

I couldn't afford a personal trainer, so just for me, Tony designed a weight-lifting program combined with cardio. Every Tuesday, Thursday and Saturday he met with me and pushed me to work my muscles hard. So hard I whimpered sometimes. But I was grateful. I could feel the results. Each day, I was able to do more reps, more push-ups, more crunches than the day before.

I walked on the beach, building up my endurance until I could cover the same distance running. I rode my bike everywhere. I swam. I had a friend teach me how to surf. Paddling far out into the ocean and catching a wave back in—boy, that burns fat and builds muscle!

I'm not saying there weren't times I wanted to skip a workout and rest. Especially when it was rainy and cold, and training felt miserable. But then I would remember that voice I heard on September 11. You have to stand up and do something. I would remember the promise I'd made to God to honor the dream he had given me. You can't give up, I told myself. Commitment is one of the Navy's core values.

One day in late February 2002, I stepped on the scale. I looked down at the number twice to be sure. 170. I'd done it! I'd lost those 100 pounds.

I marched into the Navy recruiting station with my head held high. Nothing was going to stop me now. I walked right past the guy who had laughed me out the door last September and asked for the recruiter who'd taken the time to talk to me on the phone.

We got all the paperwork in order. "I'll escort you to the military processing station for your entrance physical," my recruiter said, checking his calendar. "That'll be two days from now. February 26."

I knew the date. It was my twenty-sixth birthday.

Thanks to all the workouts at the gym with Tony, the physical was a breeze. By the time I left for boot camp in September, I was 158 pounds, a sleek, strong size 10.

On September 11, 2002, I stood in formation with my fellow recruits at a memorial service, wearing the uniform of the United States Navy. It was one of the proudest moments of my life.

There would be more tests facing me, more struggles to overcome. The nine weeks of boot camp were notorious for being draining—both physically and mentally. But I was ready for the challenge, ready to grab my dream and run with it. I'd wanted to help my country. What I discovered was that I had to help myself first.

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