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VetDogs Graduate Story: Aletha Williams: Making a Better Life

If there is a principle that has guided Aletha Williams, it has been the desire to make a better life. 

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Aletha Williams, Navy Veteran, VetDogs Graduate

When she was 13, her parents moved their family of eight children from Jamaica to the United States. “My parents figured that we would have better opportunities,” Williams says. 

Due to U.S. immigration rules, however, the family had to be split between her mother’s three siblings once they arrived in America. Williams grew up mostly in North Carolina and New Jersey. 

“It was a culture shock,” she says. “I went from being an extrovert to an introvert,” in part because some of her fellow students made fun of her accent, “and so I became quiet.” She found her escape in books “into a space where there was peace and fun and joy and nobody was judging me.” 

In the Navy 

Williams did well in school, and she says she had a group of friends who encouraged her to go to college. “I just had to find a way,” she laughs. 

In high school, Williams was fortunate to have teachers who nurtured her interest in science and math, and she became involved in a program called Eagle Flight Academy, which provides high school students with mentorship for careers in aviation and aerospace. In addition to flight ground school, students also learn to fly in the program’s own Cessnas. She briefly considered joining the Air Force and looked at the U.S. Military Academy and Coast Guard Academy but instead chose the Naval Academy.

Why? She laughs. “It’s a funny reason. Being from Jamaica, we don’t like the cold.” The U.S. Naval Academy is located in Annapolis, Maryland, “so my decision to go to the Naval Academy was based on temperature.” But it was the right decision. Williams spent 20 years in the Navy and had attained the rank of lieutenant commander when she retired in 2014. 

She first attended the Naval Academy Preparatory School before entering the U.S. Naval Academy in 1991 after attaining her U.S. citizenship at age 18. She graduated in 1994 with a bachelor’s degree in English and a minor in French. 

Williams had planned to go into navigation and aviation, but a medical issue put an end to a potential career in aviation. “That was good, because the aviation pipeline was so backlogged,” she says. 

Instead, she decided to pursue her surface warfare officer qualification, which would mean serving on combatant ships. This was a new career path for women; previously, female sailors had been limited to serving on support ships outside war zones. (In 1993, Congress repealed this prohibition; Williams was among the initial wave of women to serve in this capacity.) 

Her first assignment was on the USS Abraham Lincoln, which, at the time, was deployed to the Persian Gulf. Williams was one of four women to serve on the Lincoln. She was the communications officer, with responsibility for handling and keeping safe all the classified and sensitive material. 

Tough decisions 

After Williams gave birth to her first child, she was deployed again and when she returned to the U.S., “he didn’t really know me, didn’t even recognize me,” she says. “That took a toll on me.” She was based at Naval Station Everett in Washington state and wanted to remain there. Williams continued her education and went to engineering school to become a systems engineer. (She has master’s degrees in systems engineering and information systems operations.) 

In 2003, Williams was diagnosed with cervical cancer. She had to take shore duty, which meant being based on land, as opposed to being assigned to a ship that could be deployed at sea. It marked the end of her forward career movement, she says. 

She also had another tough decision to make. The solution to her cancer was to have a hysterectomy, but “I decided to delay treatment to have another child. So I did.” She calls her second son her “miracle child.” “He just turned 20,” she says, “and I have been cancer free for 20 years.” 

Williams remained resolute in her determination to do a full 20 years in the Navy and then retire. “I had to be an advocate for myself,” she says. She pushed for other jobs and held a number of different positions. 

For several years, she was an operations manager and test director for the operational test and evaluation force in San Diego, and she spent her final years in the Navy as part of an exchange program with the Canadian Armed Forces, working as a financing manager based in British Columbia. 

Making life better 

Emotional turmoil in her personal life, coupled with the stress of work, left Williams “dilapidated.” “I went from running 10 to 15 miles a day to being barely able to walk,” and there were days when she could barely get out of bed. 

For almost 10 years, Williams had to deal with both emotional and physical pain every day, including having her knees and hips replaced, and had to walk with a cane. “I didn’t want to be around anyone,” she says. “Trusting people became hard.” To help her understand what was happening to her own body, Williams went back to school and is currently pursuing her PhD in mind and body medicine. She became a life coach to help others make their lives better, and she often speaks about domestic violence and toxic relationships. 

Williams decided to apply for a service dog when she realized that a dog could help with her anxieties and physical challenges. She reached out to several other service dog schools, but it was America’s VetDogs that responded to her concerns. “I sent all these videos and an explanation to America’s VetDogs,” she says. “They were able to train Artie for what I needed, so that’s why I chose them.” 

Williams met her new service dog, Artie, a yellow Labrador Retriever, in November 2022 and says they bonded right away. “When I got Artie, I immediately felt like I could go back out into a crowd and be amongst people.” 

Artie has been trained to retrieve items Williams drops, provide balance support if she is unsteady, and create a physical buffer between her and other people if she is feeling anxious. 

Artie, Williams says, “has increased my ability to go back out and ‘do.’ Whenever I ask him for help, he gives it to me.” 

Sponsor: Cost of Freedom, Inc.

Puppy Raiser: Osborn Correctional Institution

Weekend Raiser: Tammy McKay

 

Author: Bill Krol, America’s VetDogs

View original article in The VetDogs Sentinel