Careers Of Adventure, Community For Life
Four servicewomen sailed abroad to save lives, and brought leadership, friendship and fellowship to our islands. By Delores Schweitzer.
Whether singing in choirs, crewing a sailboat across the Pacific, dragon boat racing, ringing tower bells, or showing up every day as part of the Turtle Team, there’s a set of local women who know how to be team players.
Among them they’ve started the Wild Dunes Yacht Club, organized Friends of the Library book sales, conducted Girl Scout adventures to barrier islands, and continued to work well beyond a comfortable retirement package.
But hear them when they get together at Morgan Creek Grill, a favorite hangout, and references to Desert Storm, Vietnam, Guam, the Philippines, London, Okinawa, Marianas Islands come out in casual conversation. Suddenly you realize these are women who have led extraordinary lives beyond the Lowcountry.
Joining the military represented opportunity for Navy Captains Linda Daehn, Arlene Southerland and Sue Widhalm, and Commander Alice Bova. While women always provided critical nursing support in times of war on ship and shore, it was not until 1908 that Congress established a permanent U.S. Navy Nurse Corps, allowing women to formally serve in the Navy. From that first group known as the “Sacred Twenty” onward, career possibilities grew as women served in positions of increasing responsibility during wartime, and humanitarian efforts in times of peace.
These four women are just some of the exceptional service members that forged their own path abroad and at home, in service and in our communities.
Setting a New Course
For these four Navy Nurses, the call came in different forms — seeing family members’ service in action, seeking adventure or education. But the promises of the recruitment office soon gave way to the realities of military life. Frequent moves to stations in big cities and backwaters, lots of classes and practicums, and increasing responsibilities kept life interesting.
Despite the constant challenges and rewards of the work, the women agree that a major challenge of military life is not getting too comfortable. Changing duty stations every two to three years is not uncommon — but it’s a lifestyle that can be appealing, if it means a unique location or an advanced career opportunity.
“The moves were always on orders, although you could request an assignment that was available if you met the qualifications for the position,” Widhalm explains. “Sometimes you got it and sometimes you didn’t. In the end, you just went where they needed you.”
With duty stations changing so often, a system of camaraderie evolved in the Navy Nurse Corps (NNC) to help with the transitions.
“Back in the 70s, a woman could get married but was required to get out if she got pregnant,” Bova explains. “Some left after a few years, but many of us stayed for careers and never married.” For those that stayed, Bova says, “we were all in the same boat — coming and going all the time. Every time you moved there was a party sending you off and a party welcoming you to the next duty station.”
Southerland recalls arriving at Port Hueneme in Ventura, California, only to discover there was no vacant base housing. “I called the Nurse Corps officer sponsoring me, and she offered her house for 30 days while she was on leave and traveling with her fiancé. I had never met her, but I walked in and she gave me the keys to her house. It was that kind of trust everywhere you went.”
Outside of the job, worldwide travel also meant adventurous perks. Widhalm’s siblings loved her assignments because it gave them a new place to visit. Southerland picked up a lifelong hobby of sailing while stationed in Spain. Daehn loved the culture, customs and art on her two tours of Japan, as well as the amazing scuba diving off the Great Barrier Reef, Palau and Truk while stationed in Guam. And Bova found herself on the remote island of Diego Garcia in the Indian Ocean, passing the time fishing, hobnobbing with the British forces and playing beach volleyball in between flying medevacs during Operation Desert Storm.
Finding a Forever Home
It wasn’t surprising that a love of the water, island living, and cultural enticements made Charleston a draw for these women when it came time to hang up their uniforms. All had been stationed at the Charleston Naval Hospital at one time during their careers, where the nursing family was strong and community opportunities were plentiful.
Bova bought property on Isle of Palms in 1992 — a fixer-upper that needed lots of help, thanks to Hurricane Hugo. She kept the house when she was posted to Portsmouth, Virginia, finally returning to the Low - country with her adopted daughter, Liann, when she retired from the NNC in 1998 with over 25 years of service.
Bova has since worked for two decades at Roper Hospital, MUSC and Trident Tech while pursuing hobbies in singing and dragon boat racing. Motherhood has meant sharing her enthusiasm and organizational skills as a troop leader for the Girl Scouts and as officer for the Charleston School of the Arts Booster Club, where her daughter majored in violin. “My Navy ‘family’ helped me raise my daughter,” Bova says. Liann, now majoring in nursing at the University of South Carolina, “will introduce my Navy Nurse friends as her Navy Nurse family.”
Southerland never planned to settle here, but over the years, she invested in real estate as she moved. When she needed a home for her sailboat, “Serenity,” a joint property and boat slip at Wild Dunes fit the bill. The place grew on her, and when she retired after 30 years, she quickly found other outlets for her energy, including the Turtle Team, tower bell ringing at Stella Maris, golf, service in the Coast Guard Auxiliary, and ticket management for the Family Circle Cup (now Volvo Car Open) tennis tournament.
Southerland’s love of sailing never ebbed. She tells tales of crewing for friends with sailboats as they moved along the coast and even across oceans. Ten years ago, she talked some of her neighboring boat owners into starting the Wild Dunes Yacht Club, which combines education and socializing on sea and shore. She proudly reports the initial group of 20 has grown to just under 200 members in 2016.
Daehn similarly wanted an active retirement with friends nearby, and Charleston fit the bill. Retiring with 29 years of service in 2002, she used her newfound free time to explore volunteer opportunities with organizations like the Turtle Team. “It tuned me in to the wildlife and natural beauty of our barrier islands,” she says, noting that she also works with the Charleston Horticultural Society’s annual plant sale, Plantasia. Additionally, she volunteers 16 hours a week with the Charleston Friends of the Library, having served on its board and in leadership roles over the years. She fills in her remaining time with travel and involvement in the national and Palmetto Chapter of the Navy Nurse Corps Association.”
Widhalm, who always wanted to be stationed in Charleston, was “absolutely thrilled” when she finished her Executive Officer tour in Guam and was selected for Command at the Charleston Naval Hospital. She retired in 2006 with 31 years of service and now lives in Wild Dunes, where she volunteers with Hospice of Charleston, plays golf, sails, sings in the Stella Maris choir, and gives special love and attention to her dog sitting charges. Widhalm also champions the NNCA, for which she was a charter member: “I was ‘married’ to the Navy. I gave most of my time to my job and whatever the organization needed.”
Far from widowing these nurses at retirement, the NNCA advocates for retired and active duty nurses, collects stories of veterans and celebrates the contributions of nurses in the military.
All four are involved in the organization’s local and national leadership. Through their work with the NNCA and beyond, the Navy values of Pride, Patriotism, Integrity, Discipline and Camaraderie continue for Bova, Daehn, Southerland and Widhalm. Their equally active and adventurous lives prove their lifelong mission of service and leadership.