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Dr. Stephanie Smith, West Chester, PA

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What does a 51-year-old woman, with a successful dental practice, a 25 year marriage and two grown up kids do when her lifelong closest girlfriend succumbs to cancer?

Join the Navy!

After an emotionally trying year in which I anguished 24/7 with Patty during her courageous battle to survive, I found myself being ordered to get “ON YOUR FACE” and to do pushups at boot camp in Direct Commission Officer School, with a group of 25-35 year olds that were placing bets when the old lady would collapse.

This was not some spontaneous abandonment of reason and sanity. I am proud of my career accomplishments and my credentials illustrate that this woman has executed a plan to be the best dentist she can be with logic, precision, and a great deal of fortitude. A professional simply doesn’t achieve what I have achieved by having moments of insanity.

Not too much longer after I had held her hand as she took her last breath, I realized Patty had challenged me in a way she never understood. Our friendship, our connection had been so strong over the last 45 years. I felt as though she were still talking to me. “If you were about to breathe your last breath, would you be satisfied that you had given life all you could give it?”

The answer was very clear to me – “NO!”

Like so many other women, I had given my life to pleasing others. While I truly love what I do, I have a successful dental practice in part because it pleased the expectations of my parents, my husband, and my patients. However, what had I really accomplished for myself? What about that little girl in me who so many years ago wanted to join the military?

As I wept for my loss of my best friend, I realized that I was experiencing an atomic collision of emotions. I felt so alone. At that moment, I wasn’t a wife or even a mother. I was a woman who needed to make a point that I could stand on my own, without the support of others, and do anything I put my mind to.

Trust me. It is tough choosing joining the Navy as the “anything I put my mind to”. But it can be done.

While other women might imagine reflections of themselves in the mirror with glamorous outfits, trying on societal stereotypes of femininity and daintiness, I always imagined a reflection of myself in military uniform. In 1991 CNN played a loop endlessly as Marines boarded a plane heading for the Gulf War. I watched as one of my former University of Pennsylvania SDM instructors climbed aboard. While everyone talked about the shock of that deployment, secretly, I envied the opportunity that he had be given.

There is something inside every woman that longs to be a loving mother. I am no different. I put aside thoughts of military fatigues so I could raise two wonderful and amazing children. In fact, my son set his sights on the Naval Academy as a young boy. For over 20 years, my pursuit of excellence in my profession helped their father and I guide them into becoming the young man and woman that make me so proud to be their mother.

However, life can be a wonderful puzzle. When the pieces amazingly fit together, it is incredible. My son graduated from the Naval Academy in 2010 and, before being assigned to submarine duty, was asked to spend two weeks working at the Philadelphia Recruiting Station. He was assigned the duty to recruit dentists to join the Navy. He was asked to recruit his own mother! When I received the letter, written in my son’s handwriting – the final piece of the puzzle was staring me in the eye.

With the flood of emotions and introspection that followed the death of my friend, I was beyond eager to sign-up for the Navy. My “later in life” dream was finally now! I promised myself that I would see it through. Yes, I would have to compete with all the rest of the candidates at every level. I would be physically and mentally challenged in ways I had never experienced before. But, I would do it!

It started simply with an email. I anticipated my age would put a rapid end to my quest to achieve my lifelong dream. However, the recruiter didn’t bat an eye. In retrospect, the fact that I would automatically assume I would be denied is ridiculous. It may seem foolish to expect an offer of a commission, but balance the age with my experience and what I may be able to offer the young men and women that serve our country, it all seems very reasonable.

At that time there was a story that got a little, tiny, bit of play on the national news. It was a story about a 60 year old physician who had joined the Army Reserves! His dream was to go to Afghanistan. I repeatedly Googled this man’s story. I learned that he had completed boot camp and would be deployed to the Middle East! How often do you hear a story like that? Coincidence? I think not.

I remember agonizing over every question on the voluminous documentation I had to complete. While the recruiter told me my answers were “great”, there was not the affirmation I had been looking for by painstakingly choosing each perfect word in every answer. I learned that the military is not a place where you will get touchy-feely words of encouragement. It is a place to do your job. It is a place to get facts and assignments from a chain of command and to execute those assignments, using those facts, immediately. Could life really be that simple?

Within a short while, my self-doubts were being exorcised from my soul as I was encouraged to do 100 sit-ups and to finally break 15 minutes in the 1.5 mile run. I had to make my bed, clean my room, turn out my lights, get in formation, march, and get my uniform inspected like I was a real Sailor. I learned I could rise up to the challenge! My son Matthew turned into both my coach and my cheerleader, helping his mother meet her greatest challenge in life. I found running shoes at a local shoe store that helped reduce the pain in my ankles I was feeling. I found an app for my iPhone that helped me focus on the physical goals I was being asked to achieve.

Some of the recruits cried, complained, and took to their sick beds. Others cheered and helped one another. For two weeks I pictured my dear Patty, and her show of strength and courage during her greatest physical challenge. I never heard her complain or whine. She always believed in a positive outcome. How could I be any different? I imagined her going through the rigorous training with me and the example she would set for us all – kill the physical training, create a team, correct constructively, and, most of all, be kind. On the last night before we were to have our last physical challenge at 5AM, I was worried about simply passing. Patty came to me in a dream, smiled at me, and cheered me on. I had my best time yet.

On May 13, 2011 I was Commissioned as a Lieutenant into the United States Naval Reserve.

Ladies, what can you overcome “late in life”? What dreams can you achieve? What adversity can you free yourself from, whether it is a chemotherapy treatment or simply remember a childhood dream and see it through? I believe you can look back on your challenge and be proud of yourself. I believe you will have helped someone along the way and you will have learned from a mistake. When you do, add a little swagger to your step, push back your shoulders and stand strong. You faced a challenge, fell down, and made a comeback, You made the journey the reward.

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