Cathy Williams talks about her Air Force service. Dennis Grundman/Daily
Cathy Williams served in the U.S. Air Force in the Persian Gulf as a medic. COURTESY PHOTO
By Jessica Wiant -- Daily Staff Writer
On Cathy Williams' front porch in Browntown, potted flowers hung uniformly between each post, and by the steps an American flag rippled in the breeze.
Hers looked like so many other homes donning a red, white and blue flag or a yellow ribbon. But for Williams, patriotism isn't just a decorative theme.
Originally from Connecticut, she graduated high school in 1991, the year of Operation Desert Storm.
She came from a family with a proud military tradition. Her grandfathers both served in the Navy, as did her father and uncle. Her oldest sister signed up for the Army.
Even knowing what had been happening in the Middle East, Williams joined the Air Force that fall.
"I'm very patriotic. I just wanted to be a part of everything," she said. "I was excited. I was ready for something awesome, and I got it."
Her sister, having been through the ropes in the Army, recommended the Air Force for the best food, cleanest housing and nicest facilities.
When the recruiter came to Williams' home, she already knew she wanted to be a part of the medical field. From a book of possible Air Force jobs, she chose the one she wanted: aeromedical technician.
After basic and technical training, Williams' stateside job became performing physicals on other airmen and answering sick calls. She and her team also were on call to be the first to respond during in-flight emergencies. If an aircraft was having difficulty, her team was ready on the ground in case of a crash landing to save anyone they could or "bag and tag" the wreckage.
A few years later, the U.S. still had a job to do in the Persian Gulf. Williams was stationed at Travis Air Force Base in California when duty called.
She was a member of the Squadron Medical Element for the 9th Air Refueling Squadron. She didn't know where she was going until she'd boarded the plane: They were on their way to Al Dhafra Air Base in the United Arab Emirates as part of Operation Southern Watch.
Williams would have the same duties: sick calls, physicals and being on call to respond to emergencies. But everything she and her squadron did would be part of the U.S. effort to enforce a no-fly zone over southern Iraq, she said.
For Williams, that included everything from treating kidney stones and food poisoning to assisting in minor surgical procedures, like cyst removal, with her three-person crew, which included another aeromedical technician and a doctor.
A lot of heavy lifting was required, including large plastic tubs that contained items necessary to set up a clinic.
"I knew what to expect. As a matter of fact, it was better than what I expected," she said.
In the end, however, it wasn't a plane crash that put Williams' training to the test.
Early one morning when Williams was on call, a bus full of her fellow airmen was on its way back from Abu Dhabi when the driver fell asleep and the bus rolled multiple times.
Williams was first at the scene and coordinated the care of 13 injured.
"I've responded a million times. You train for this stuff all this time ... but this was real," she said.
No one was killed, and everyone came out OK.
Williams received an Air Force Commendation Medal for her service on the 9th Air Refueling Squadron -- it cited her response to the bus crash, among other accomplishments.
The hard part of the incident though, was arriving at the local hospital, where native male employees had problems working with a woman.
It was one of multiple times that, Williams said, she experienced the culture shock of being in the United Arab Emirates.
On off-duty days, she could go to the city of Abu Dhabi, where she never saw other women out. Even she could never be alone as a woman. Men she worked with served as escorts.
Once she saw a woman in the back seat of a car; a man was driving and a goat was in the front passenger seat.
On one occasion, she and a group were off duty and going to dinner. Williams was wearing a full-length skirt and a sleeveless sweater, and when the Arabic men saw her bare arms, they hurled rocks at her.
On duty with fellow Americans, however, being a woman was never an impediment.
"We were treated just like anybody else," she said. "I'm no different than any other airman ... man or woman we all do the same job."
After serving her four-year enlistment, plus another year, Williams left the Air Force for civilian life and attended culinary school in San Francisco.
That heavy lifting she'd done while in the Air Force, however, would come back to haunt her.
Plagued by back problems, Williams has undergone two surgeries and was awaiting the results of another MRI.
She suffers pain in her legs and can't sit, stand or walk for any length of time. She no longer is able to work.
She said she had no regrets, though.
"I'd do it again. I'd do it yesterday. Physically, I can't," she said.
The most rewarding part has been serving her country.
"I'm here and have this freedom because of what [other veterans] did in Korea, Vietnam. I'm so grateful to be American, free. To be a part of that whether it's big or small, makes me very proud."
Of course, there were other benefits, too.
Williams wanted to travel and wasn't looking for more school just yet, but she knew the G.I. Bill would afford her the opportunity later.
"I wanted to get out of my small town," she said. And she did. Williams also made trips and served in England, Italy, Spain and Germany during her time in the Air Force.
"Whenever you deploy and you're not working, you have so much fun," she said. She said she doesn't want people to think it was a bad experience.
"I got it all and then some. That's just priceless, as they say."
To this day Williams does more to be patriotic than just hang a flag.
She is active in the Front Royal Veterans of Foreign Wars and volunteers as a service officer helping fellow veterans get copies of medical records, fill out forms and whatever else is necessary to receive assistance. It's something that she knows all too well, having gone through it herself.
"That I find very rewarding," she said.
NEXT WEEK: A career Marine officer reflects on "the dichotomy of beauty and death" in Vietnam.
* Contact Jessica Wiant at firstname.lastname@example.org