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Trading combat boots for diplomas

By From the Boston Glob

By Nancy Shohet West, Globe Correspondent

Today is graduation day at the University of Massachusetts at Lowell, and the 63 students scheduled to receive their nursing degrees have done their share of clinical work to get here. To fulfill their degree requirements, they've put in many hours in doctors' offices, emergency rooms, recovery units, and special care facilities.

But for two of the graduates, the road to getting their diplomas was out of the ordinary, even severe. Adrienne Huynh Williams, who grew up in Wilmington and now lives in Westford, and Grethel Carias-Medina, of Arlington, put their nursing studies on hold to serve in the Army in Iraq.

Williams, 25, was with the 118th Area Support Medical Battalion's A Company, a National Guard unit based in Concord. She says she joined the military in May 2001, motivated by the GI Bill after she discovered the high cost of college tuition.

"If September 11th had happened a year earlier, I probably would not have enlisted," she said. "Or at least I wouldn't have been so easily motivated to enlist. It's not that I don't want to fight for my country, but after 9/11 it became a much scarier proposition than when I signed on."

After completing basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Mo., Williams started taking classes toward her nursing degree at UMass-Lowell while also planning for a June 2004 wedding to an Army colleague. Meanwhile, she earned additional money working at a pizza parlor -- which is where she was the day she got the news that both she and her fiance, Fred, were being put on active duty and deployed to Iraq.

"My very first reaction was shock," Williams said recently. "I thought, 'Is this a joke?' and then, 'Please let it be a joke.' And then, 'What am I going to do?' I was 22 years old and my life was great: I had my own apartment, I was planning to get married the next summer, and I was going to graduate from college in a couple of years. I didn't want to go to Iraq."

But duty called, and so Williams and her fiance took care of an important detail: They changed their wedding date. "We called everyone we knew and said, 'We're getting married tomorrow in my parents' backyard; be there if you can,' " Williams recalled. "About 40 of our family and friends managed to show up."

Soon they were off to Fort Drum, N.Y., for specialized medic training. It was January 2004 when they deployed, briefly to Kuwait and then to Iraq, where they stayed for nearly a year.

"We served as medics on mobile collection teams," said Williams. "We were assigned to the groups that were looking for weapons of mass destruction, with one medic per team. I expected an assignment that would be more like working in a hospital with casualties brought in, but this was different: We were out on the road, going into enemy territory. It was extremely stressful."

The stress did not dampen Williams's interest in nursing, however. Although the work she did as a medic did not count toward her degree program, she still touts the intangible benefits she gained from the experience.

"I learned to cope well in emergency conditions, thinking quickly on my feet," she said. "At 5-6 and 120 pounds, I was much smaller than my male team members. It was tough to get them to accept the idea that I could get them out of danger. But I proved myself."

Meanwhile, a UMass-Lowell classmate whom Williams had not yet met also had her studies interrupted to serve as an Army medic in Iraq.

Carias-Medina was 24 when she left in early 2003 for a tour of duty that lasted nearly two years. Serving in the Army Reserve's 439th Quartermaster Company, her primary responsibility in Iraq was to assist and provide medical oversight for her fellow soldiers.

"The work was tough, but everyone in my unit worked as a team and that was great," Carias-Medina said. "In that situation, communication and teamwork are crucial, and we had that."

Neither Williams nor Carias-Medina was wounded in combat, although Carias-Medina hurt her back in a vehicle accident. "I don't think I'll ever completely lose the back pain from that injury," she said. "Being on my feet all day is still hard."

Knowing what she was missing at home was hard, too. Carias-Medina had left behind her husband, Petros Papastavrou, and 2-year-old son, Petros Jr.

"My son was not doing well," she said. "He stopped talking. We were very worried about him. I coped while I was away by keeping busy. It was too heartbreaking to think about what was going on at home."

As her tour of duty drew to a close in fall of 2004, Carias-Medina grew increasingly anxious about resuming her nursing studies. She said she called Pauline Ladebauche, the director of undergraduate advising at UMass-Lowell, from Iraq to ask whether there was a spot for her in the program. Ladebauche reassured Carias-Medina that she could register for the following semester and faxed her course schedule to Kuwait, where Carias-Medina picked it up on her way home.

Dr. Mary Ellen Doherty, an assistant professor of nursing who's had both women as students, said the two are motivated and committed to their chosen field. "Finishing the nursing program was at the top of their priority list, so they came back to school without missing a beat. They are going to be a real asset to the field of nursing," Doherty said.

Today, the two women will leave UMass having gained far more experience in their college years than the typical diploma recipient. Carias-Medina, who has worked as a medical aide at Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center in Boston since returning from Iraq, will soon begin a new position there in the transplant unit.

"I'm very excited about that," she said. "Everyone at Beth Israel has been extremely supportive of me all along, and I've learned so much from the nurses there."

Her son is now a well-adjusted 6-year-old, happy to have his mom back home.

Williams, who recently moved to a new home in Westford, has been working as a phlebotomist in a medical lab and is seeking placement as a labor and delivery nurse.

"I like emergency room care and I like the OR, but having been in Iraq, I've seen so many emergency situations that I'm ready for a change. I want to get into the happy part of nursing," she said.

Both of the women have completed their commitment to the military.

"I have turned in my gear and am waiting to sign the paperwork to be discharged," Williams said.

Just before she and her husband were deployed to Iraq, they got themselves matching tattoos that say, "Faith in our eternal love and devotion." "I used to think about that motto all the time when I was on duty," she said.

This spring, the Williamses welcomed their first child, a daughter.

The baby's name?

Faith, of course.