LAWRENCEVILLE - After 13 years as a civilian, Randi Williams re-enlisted in the Air Force Reserve Nurse Corp.
The 46-year-old Lawrenceville woman recently returned from Iraq with about 14 other members of the 94th Air Medical Evacuation Squadron based at Dobbins Air Force Base in Marietta.
Williams left for a 120-day tour in early January and returned in late May.
Her start in the service came in 1981 at the age of 18, when she joined the reserves.
"My dad had been involved in the military and I knew at that point I wanted to be a nurse," she said. "I figured if I could be a medic on a reserve weekend, that was a good Litmus test for becoming a nurse."
After completing nursing school four years later, Williams was commissioned as a second lieutenant in the Air Force Reserve Nurse Corp.
Before her most recent tour, Williams was last deployed in 1991 to Germany during Desert Storm. Following that tour, she took a 13-year break in service to raise her daughter, Eran, now 19. When Eran graduated from high school, Williams explored returning to the reserves.
"You get to the point where you think, 'I'm probably too heavy or too old to do this again,'" Williams said, "but I thought, 'Why not ask?'"
About a year later, Williams returned to the reserves and has been enlisted for the past two years.
"Twenty years will certainly put a different perspective on it," Williams said. "Physically, it's very demanding. When you're in your early 20s you can pull it off very easily."
But in almost 20 years, Williams said the mission of the air medic hasn't changed.
"It's always about the soldier, the airman, the seaman, the Marine that's really out there doing what we trust them to do," she said. "When it doesn't go well and there is some sort of wound, then that's where we come in. That really doesn't change. That level of compassion, that level of, 'How can I safely get them from point A to point B?'"
What has changed, Williams said, is the average time it now takes to transport wounded members of the military to definitive care, from 10 days during Desert Storm to 72 hours today.
"That's huge," she said. "And it greatly contributed to survivability and hopefully improved quality of life because they can get to where they need to be."
Williams was stationed at Joint Base Balad, which she called one of the No. 1 trauma centers in the world right now. Her primary work, however, took place in aircraft carrying wounded service men and women to medical facilities.
Williams described her daily living experience there as "camping in the desert" in an area where the sounds of power generators and aircraft taking off and landing all hours of the day were constant and loud.
"It was pretty austere in terms of lots of cement, lots of sand," she said. "Safety is always the number one thing ... so we lived in an area that we called a gated community. You had to have the right access to come into our living area."
Williams shared a room inside the living quarters and walked about 30 to 40 yards to restroom facilities. The walk to have meals was a quarter- to a half-mile.
"They do a wonderful job of keeping you fed. Baskin Robbins is alive and well over there," Williams laughed.
Joint Base Balad also housed a library, a cyber cafe, self-help laundry and a chapel. Inside the chapel was Troy's Place, where items sent from individuals and communities throughout America were made available to military personnel. Williams said she enjoyed Girl Scout cookies from Troy's Place.
While living in Iraq, Williams experienced sandstorms for the first time.
"It was trying to like breathe through a wool blanket, even inside," she said. "It was so hazy, as if there was smoke in the room it was so sandy. Imagine thick fog in Georgia and that's what it looked like, only it was sand."
Temperatures outdoors in Iraq during Williams' tour ranged from 110 to 120 degrees, but Williams didn't have any complaints.
"I have never had to wear all my gear on a foot patrol in a place carrying a weapon," she said. "There are others that really do the deed. There are young people ... and they do it with their whole heart and they are out there giving everything every day."
"None of us could do this without the support of our families," Williams continued. "You read about families that are left behind, if you will, and they continue on with everyday activities."
Her own family, husband Kevin, daughter Eran, and stepsons Daniel and Tyler, supported Williams with letters, cards and any items she needed from home.
"I so hope that families continue to be recognized for their contributions," Williams said. "Even though they're not the ones that are over there, they really are contributing both in terms of support and carrying on and being productive where they are."
Employers should be recognized as well, she said.
"This is part of their work force that is gone anywhere from four months to a year. The experience that I have had, (employers) have been very, very positive, very supportive," she said. "Those are some things that as a reservist, I'm very grateful, very thankful for it."
Before her deployment, Williams worked as a personal nurse for Humana, a job she resigned after five years when she learned of her tour. Back home now, she is continuing her military service as a reservist and getting back to life as a civilian.
"I think the hardest thing about coming home is you're very, very grateful for your family and what you have but you don't forget that half a world away it's still the same over there," Williams said. "People are working very hard, they're in harm's way, they are trying to make a difference and they get up every morning and do what they do."