Women At The Helm of Naval Hospital Beaufort
Story and Photography by
Randy Gaddo, CWO-4 USMC (Ret)
Anne Lear was destined to be a Navy woman. Her grandfather, father and three of her five brothers all served in the Navy. “So, I was actually going to enlist in the Navy as a corpsman, but they talked me out of it,” recounted the 24-year Navy veteran; a pediatric nurse practitioner and the commanding officer of Naval Hospital Beaufort (NHB) and Naval Support Facility since July 2013.
Melanie Merrick, a Navy medical doctor, didn’t know too much about her father’s service as a Navy corpsman in WWII until after she joined the Navy. Pragmatism brought her to Navy medicine. “I was applying to medical schools, and when I saw the price tag on private schools, I decided I could do a good thing for my parents and myself by applying for military service,” she explained. Melanie has been the executive officer of NHB since July 2012. This past August, she departed for a prestigious position as commanding officer of the U.S. Naval hospital ship, Mercy.
Both women are Navy captains, the equivalent of a colonel in other military services. They came from opposite coasts but coincidently started their Navy paths at the same time.
Anne received her Masters in Nursing from her home turf at the University of San Diego in 1988. After certification as a pediatric nurse practitioner, she maintained a small community practice for two years. During that time she mentored civilian and Navy nursing graduate students. Through this, she was introduced to the idea of joining the Navy.
“One of the young Navy men I mentored reached out to a Navy Nurse Corps recruiter and said he needed to talk with me,” she recalled, at a time when her small clinic was being bought out and she was looking for a job. “The recruiter called me and, long story short, I did it and I’ve loved it ever since.”
Melanie is from Winter Haven, Fla., and after completing a bachelor's degree in English from Emory University, she talked with Army, Air Force and Navy medical schools. By process of elimination, she chose the Navy, which also provides medical care for U.S. Marines. “They had a really good recruiter and I thank him for steering me to the Navy,” she said. Melanie signed up in 1989 through the Armed Forces Health Professions Scholarship Program. She was commissioned and started medical school at the University of Miami as an ensign, going to military drills during the summers. In the summer of 1990, she went to the Officer Indoctrination School in Newport, R.I., and graduated on August 9, five days before Operation Desert Shield started. Melanie went back to school, graduated and entered a family practice internship at the Naval Hospital Charleston, S.C.
In the course of both of their careers, Anne and Melanie have seen the best and worst the world has to offer.
Anne has been involved in humanitarian missions to places such as Cuba, Guam, Ecuador and Guatemala. She was the senior nurse at a major NATO hospital in Kandahar, Afghanistan, from July 2009 to September 2010. She served directly with Marines in Cherry Point, N.C., prior to coming here.
“The opportunities in the military have been so unique, nothing you’d ever experience in the civilian world,” Anne said. “I think it may become routine for many of my civilian counterparts seeing patients for the same things, sometimes the same patients over and over. For us, there is constant variety and every two, three or max four years you are moving to another site. You have the opportunity to learn a new job. The learning curve is steep and it can be a little stressful,” she acknowledged. “But the military gives you the tools and you just have to be a self-starter and take charge of what’s going on in your career.”
Melanie cites the insurance and business element as a major difference between military and civilian medicine.
Because the Navy offers Tricare medical coverage, Anne said it frees herself up from doing paperwork for billing and allows her to spend more time with patients.
Melanie agreed with Anne that her profession has allowed her the opportunity to witness and work at places most civilians don't experience. She served at the Branch Medical Clinic in Bahrain after the 9/11 terroists attacks. Seven months later she was in Iraq. Melanie also was called on after the earthquake in Haiti and said she is qualified to serve as a medical officer on a submarine.
“The ability to be judged on performance that is not restricted by gender is how you will be able to move up as an officer or enlisted,” Melanie says, acknowledging that this can be true in civilian medicine, but, “How do you judge that if there isn’t a consistent system in place?”
“I would advise any young woman to consider a career in military medicine,” Anne said. “There is always a pipeline to fill and between nursing and medicine there is always a demand. Do you need to have good coping skills? Yes. Do you need to be flexible? Absolutely. Do you need an adventurous spirit and be ready to move, meet new people and learn new skills? Yes. But those are the very things that made 24 years go by in the blink of an eye for me.”
How do you relax? Anne: “I train my golden retriever, Casey. We have just passed the canine good citizen and pet therapy tests.” Melanie: “I exercise. I find that when I push myself to run or swim, I am able to let my mind wander.”
What is the latest book you have read? Anne: “Influencer, which emphasizes that a change in behavior can make a major impact on world events.” Melanie: “Currently reading My Hitch in Hell by Lester Tenney about his time as a POW during the Bataan Death March.”
What is your pet peeve? Anne: “When people give me an answer before they really have all the facts.” Melanie: “When people use the phrases ‘At the end of the day’ or ‘I have to be honest with you.’”
What kind of music do you like? Anne: “I have an eclectic ear for music, which can truly set my mood, from ‘The Sound of Music’ to Pink (a.k.a. Alecia Beth Moore Hart, R&B/pop singer/songwriter).” Melanie: “Mainstream rock—I enjoy setting my satellite radio to major city stations, as well as period music of the '70s, '80s and '90s.”