With four years of service in the Marine Corps, 23 years as a nurse, and 32 years as a military spouse, Sonya Dillard brings abundant credibility to each encounter with her clients. She also communicates her compassion and respect for the combat-injured Marines and Sailors she works with as a visiting nurse for the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society. “It’s an honor to be able to help these veterans and their families,” Sonya explained. “They’re so proud and appreciative of your trust and that you’re advocating for them.”
Born in Scotland, Sonya moved to the US when she was five years old, with her German father and Scottish mother, settling in Texas by way of South Carolina. “But I lost my mother tragically when I was 16,” Sonya recalled. “She was burned in a house fire.” Sonya’s mother was transported to the burn center in San Antonio, at what is now the US Army Institute of Surgical Research. Because of the distance from their family’s home to San Antonio, Sonya was only able to see her mother a couple times before her mother died from burn-related complications. “I knew then that I wanted to be a nurse,” Sonya said.
Sonya joined the Marines to develop as a person and find the means to pay for her education. She met her husband while they were both stationed in Japan. After completing her four-year tour, Sonya separated from the Marine Corps to pursue her nursing degree, which she received from East Carolina University. As Sonya and her husband PCS’d from place to place, Sonya learned nursing in a variety of settings, including in neurointensive care at a South Carolina hospital and in intensive care and the emergency department in three different North Carolina hospitals.
In 2005, when her husband Eddie received orders to deploy to Iraq, Sonya realized she needed to rethink her work schedule. With three kids at home, she could no longer work unpredictable shifts at the hospital. Sonya spotted an ad in the newspaper for a Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society traditional visiting nurse and applied. “I loved the ICU and ER and Neuro-ICU, and I’d never done home health, but I fell in love with it,” she explained. Sonya spent five years as a traditional visiting nurse, working primarily with moms, babies, and older retirees, and then was asked to shift to combat-casualty assistance nursing in 2010.
“My heart hurts every day from working with these clients, but at least my feet don’t, like when I was an ER nurse,” Sonya joked. “This work fills my heart and soul. Military families are so incredibly independent and stoic. There’s a suck-it-up mentality, but that doesn’t serve you well when you’re advocating for care. It is my passion to advocate for them. Having faced my own challenges and obstacles, I have empathy and compassion for those who struggle.”
Recently Sonya traveled to Western North Carolina to visit a widow whose Marine husband had been killed in an accident, leaving behind seven children. “For two days I worked side by side with this young woman and her children to help them look at their future,” she said. “I’ll continue to visit her and reach out to her family as long as they need me.”
Working with clients in their homes changes the relationship, Sonya explained. “You’re going into their space, and you don’t have control. It’s their safe space. You have to develop a rapport and respect them and earn their trust. It’s an honor when they trust us.”
Sonya has supported many clients – including those with suicidal thinking and attempts, those who are strong and independent. Her client, Charlie Poole, credits Sonya with saving his life. Charlie just bought his own house. He had post-traumatic stress disorder and a traumatic brain injury, and was struggling to recover from a suicide attempt.“ I started working with him and getting him access to care,” Sonya said. “He’s now advocating for other veterans, despite his invisible injuries.”
What keeps her going, said Sonya, is seeing her clients grow. “They’re proud and they’re fixers, and they’re not used to leaning on someone,” she said. “But they appreciate your trust and that you’re advocating for them. I see them become stronger, and they show so much gratitude.”
“The visiting nurse program is amazing—there’s nothing else like it—Sonya said. The beauty of being a combat-casualty assistance visiting nurse is that I can follow my clients as long as they need me, which is such a gift. I pray that I can do this work forever.”
By Betsy Rosenblatt Rosso