By Betsy Rosenblatt Rosso
Buoyed by the confidence that the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society placed in her, Retna Shaw decided while volunteering at her very first NMCRS office—Sigonella, in Sicily—that she never wanted to work anywhere else.
“When you marry into the military,” Retna explained, “you’re at the beck and call of your husband’s duty stations. You have to start over all the time.” Retna had cultivated a successful career in public relations in her native Singapore, and worked for the United Nations Association when she moved to the United States with her husband, an aviation technician for the Navy. As a military spouse, however, she found it challenging to build on her career. Volunteering for the Navy-Marine Corps Relief Society enabled Retna to use her skills and find a new vocation.
“I remember in Sicily it was hard for spouses to get jobs,” Retna said. “Especially for me, since I’d only been in the United States for three years prior to moving to Sicily. I’d always worked in international relations for multinational companies. Transferring job skills from a different company, having to expect someone to trust that you know what you’re doing, was challenging. I thank NMCRS for being able to recognize those skills. I just needed an opportunity.”
Retna began volunteering as a client services assistant at NMCRS Sigonella in 2010, then started doing publicity for the office and served as publicity lead for a year before taking over as chair of volunteers, which she held for a year. Because of the US government furlough, Retna’s husband’s tour in Sigonella was extended and the family enjoyed living in Sicily for three years and four months. As a result, Retna learned the NMCRS ropes so thoroughly she was asked to be the interim director when the director and her family were transferred off the island. She served as interim director of NMCRS Sigonella for seven months before her own family was transferred back to San Diego, California.
In San Diego, Retna volunteered as a caseworker in the North Island office, but quickly realized she needed to spend more time helping her three young children acclimate to life in the States, so she took time off from the Society. A year later, reassured that her children were well-adjusted, Retna learned about an opening for a relief services assistant in the Camp Pendleton office. “It was an hour and a half away from my house, but I wanted the experience working with Marines so I could have experience with both the Navy and Marine Corps sides of the house, and become an NMCRS office director someday,” Retna said. “Camp Pendleton is so busy that what you learn in a month there is like spending a year anywhere else.” She worked at Camp Pendleton for nine months while her husband was deployed, bringing her two younger kids back and forth to the child care center on base while her kindergartener attended school closer to home.
Her commitment paid off when Retna got the call asking her to serve as interim director at NMCRS Miramar. She served in that capacity for a month before being hired as director—her dream job—about three months ago. “After having the satisfaction of serving the Marines and Sailors, seeing that weight lifted off them, hearing their stories, my mind was made up that I never wanted to work anywhere else besides the Society. Every office I’ve been in, when I step in – it always feels like home. Everyone loves you the same.”
Eager to support NMCRS Miramar’s dedicated cadre of 60 volunteers, including thrift shop volunteers, Retna is working hard to recruit new volunteers by promoting job training opportunities. She wants to increase her office’s involvement in base activities by deepening their relationships with family readiness officers and commands, and hopes she and her volunteers will be asked to participate in as many briefs and events as possible. NMCRS Miramar provides more than $1.2 million in financial assistance each year and typically handles between six and 10 cases each day.
Retna deals with all of this activity with a smile on her face. “I’m a very happy person,” she explained. “Every office I’ve been in and especially around volunteers, my happiness is contagious. When service members come in with problems, you can’t make light of their situation, but you encourage them. You say, ‘It’s good that you came in today, it’s not too late.’ To see the look on their faces in that atmosphere of change and support is wonderful.”
Retna’s kids are now seven, five, and four. “My eldest daughter knows what I do. I tell her, “I’m here to help whoever comes in.” She understands. For the younger ones, it’s all about the snacks when they visit me at my office. But they all know that this is mommy’s happy place and if mommy has to go to work she’s going to help people.”
“Everyone has a story about someone they helped, when they can say, ‘today I really did meaningful work,’” Retna said. “When I was in Sicily, a single parent service member came in. Her grandmother had passed away. I could see she had been crying. She wanted to bring her three children back to the States with her, but the cost of airplane tickets was between $5000 and $6000. I couldn’t call NMCRS HQ immediately to request an exception to policy because of the time difference, but I told her we’d call HQ in an hour. I told her we would do whatever we could. I called HQ and they approved the request. The Sailor was going to be able to go home. When she walked back into my office, her shoulders were slumped. She thought there was no way the Society was going to be able to help. I looked at her and said ‘I just got off the phone and we’re going to send you and your kids home so you can say goodbye.’ She just crumpled on the floor in relief. It will always stick with me that we were able to send her home to say goodbye to her grandmother who had cared for her like a mother. That’s why we do what we do.”