An elderly lady took tentative steps forward, her weary eyes moving from the needle laying on the table to the U.S. Navy nurse standing nearby.
The lady whispered nervously, “I am afraid of needles.” In response, U.S. Navy Lt. j.g. Tomeka McDonald thoughtfully gazed at her, and, in her soothing Southern tone, said, “I know how you feel. I will take care of you.”
U.S Navy registered nurse and Georgia native, McDonald was one of the 139 Navy personnel deployed to Jacksonville, Fla., in early March to distribute and provide vaccines at the state-run, federally-supported Community Vaccination Center. To hear her life story is to understand why she joined the U.S. Navy and volunteered to help community members fight the COVID-19 pandemic.
Early on in her life, McDonald met a nurse at the nursing home where her great grandmother lived.
“I met this wonderful lady named Earnestine Anderson who treated my great grandmother with dignity and respect,” recalled McDonald. “I told my mother I wanted to grow up to be like Ms. Anderson.”
McDonald had a trying childhood. During her first few years of her life, her great grandmother raised her, but was not able to teach her the basics of education.
“She was born into slavery and was not educated because her master did not allow it. I battled reading and did not learn to do so until I was in the 3rd grade,” said McDonald.
Her great grandmother was the anchor of her life. When she passed away, McDonald’s life took a turn for the worse.
She recalled being 14 years old, “I found myself spiraling into a place I thought I would never be,” McDonald said. “I became pregnant and dropped out of school in the 10th grade.
I worked to make ends meet but not enough to take care of the both of us. I became homeless.”
But McDonald chose to overcome adversity and start a new future for her family.
“I moved into housing at Atlanta Job Corps where I received my general education development and learned a trade,” said McDonald.
According to McDonald, with things improving, she had a turning point meeting a Navy recruiter, Kenneth Sawyer.
“I told my mother I was going to make something of myself so I could take care of my son,” said McDonald.
Since there was no opening for Corpsman at the time, she signed up to become an Aviation Maintenance Administrator.
McDonald left for boot camp Sept. 26, 2001, to begin what turned out to be a flourishing Navy career. She would be promoted to the next rank on every first try, reaching the rank of Petty Officer 1st Class in six years.
The desire to constantly learn and better herself led her to cross-rate to become a Navy Career Counselor.
“I wanted to help other Sailors with available job options and programs for advancement and re-enlistment bonuses,” she said. “The job was rewarding because I made a positive impact on the lives of more than 250 Sailors.”
Her excellent performance resulted in her back-to-back selections as Sailor of the Year, first in 2012 at Naval Air Station Jacksonville, and again in 2013 as a Shore Sailor of the Year finalist at Naval Air Force, U.S. Pacific Fleet.
“I was proud of my accomplishments. I learned to network and to perfect my job and duties. I shadowed the leaders and outstanding performers,” said McDonald.
Yet, McDonald never lost sight of her dream to become a nurse. While stationed overseas, she completed her associate’s degree in Business Studies and continued to focus on college courses to meet the prerequisites for nursing school. Following the dream and working with her mentor and U.S. Navy Lieutenant Rhonaka Williams, McDonald applied and competed for the Medical Enlisted Commissioning Program.
She attended MECP at the Chamberlain University in Atlanta, Ga., from 2015 to 2018, and was commissioned a U.S. Navy Ensign in the Nurse Corps on April 22, 2018.
For the past three years, as a Maternal and Labor and Delivery Nurse at Naval Hospital Jacksonville, McDonald was responsible for providing continuous care for laboring and postpartum mothers and newborns.
The opportunity to volunteer at the CVC, where she has helped Florida residents and the Jacksonville community, was fulfilling beyond her expectations.
“As a service member, there is no higher honor for me to serve our nation and our community in their time of need, on our home turf, to help families, friends, and neighbors overcome this pandemic,” McDonald said. “Compassion is a simple hello or giving your seat up for an elder. Your actions will confirm who you are and where you stand. When I am no longer able to serve, then I will have completed my mission.”
U.S. Northern Command, through U.S. Army North, remains committed to providing continued, flexible Department of Defense support to the Federal Emergency Management Agency as part of the whole-of-government response to COVID-19.