SEBRING -For 49-year-old Sgt. Denise Williams, driving a MaxxPro Dash II gun truck through the scorching heat and rough desert terrain of Afghanistan to provide security for U.S. combat missions was just a normal day during her most recent tour of duty.
"After two deployments, you learn not to sweat the small stuff," said the Highlands County Veteran Services Officer, who returned home in January. "If you've been, there is no explanation necessary. If you haven't been, there is no way you can explain it."
With 14 years of military service with the Army, the National Guard and the Army Reserves and two back-to-back combat tours, Williams' experience has given her a firsthand understanding of the needs of area veterans, which make up one-fifth of county residents.
Funded by the county, the Veterans Services Office at 7209 S. George Blvd. in Sebring provides assistance with benefits claims, housing, education, medical care and disabilities at no cost to veterans or their families.
With her petite frame and long, dark hair, it is hard to imagine Williams with 35 pounds of gear, carrying an M-4 assault rifle. But this strong-willed advocate has earned the respect of her colleagues and is slated to be promoted to staff sergeant "any day now."
"We work well together with her being Army Reserve and me being Air Force Reserve," said Tech Sgt. Carol West, who joined the office as the Assistant Veterans Services Officer on June 1. "We have a receptionist that starts tomorrow; she is Navy."
West spoke of being asked to sing the Star Spangled Banner at a Memorial Day Service at Lakeview Memorial Gardens where Williams was the guest speaker.
"It was a good day. I felt very proud about becoming a part of this team," she said.
Women currently make up 15 percent of active military and 18 percent of the National Guard and Reserves.
While the readjustments of deployments have been hard on Williams' family, the Lake Placid native said that her son, daughter and husband of 19 years, Artie, are all proud and supportive of what she has been able to accomplish.
Williams was promoted to her position as Veterans Service Officer in 2011, just before leaving for Iraq.
She praised Highlands County commissioners, former county administrator Rick Helms and the current administrator June Fisher for the support they've provided her office.
During her Iraq deployment Williams was assigned to human resources, but she requested the position of gunner truck driver for her 2012 combat tour in Afghanistan.
She has undergone extensive weapons training, knows how to breach a house, and has learned combat lifesaving techniques to help those wounded during skirmishes and from IED explosions.
"It is the reality of the situation," Williams said of convoy vehicles she saw blown apart. "We were very blessed. As long as it was only minor injuries, we were good."
With six more years with the Reserves and another 10 to work with the county before her planned retirement, Williams said she has learned to "savor the moments" in her life.
"Spending time with my family has become so precious to me," said the avid "chef" who hopes to travel.
With a grateful heart, she thanked the USO for the calls that kept her in touch. She also commended the free veteran PTSD and spouse group counseling offered by facilities like the Vets Center in Delaney Heights in Avon Park.
She explained that vets can call Jesse Coulter (863-284-0841) to register for the Wednesday morning sessions.
Williams is a member of the County Veterans Services Association of Florida, American Legion Post 25, Disabled American Veterans Ridge Chapter 49, and she attends Placid Temple Church of God in Lake Placid.
On Nov. 11, both Williams and West will be riding in the Veteran's Day parade, which will begin at 12:30 p.m. at American Legion Post 74 on Pine Street, go around Sebring's downtown Circle, and end at the Highlands County Courthouse. They will also be making speeches and participating in commemorative programs throughout the afternoon.
"It has truly been an honor and a privilege to serve my country," said Williams.