Before Dustin Willis left Atlanta for Guantánamo Bay in 2018, he promised his fiancée that the seventh National Guard Army deployment would be his last.

“I’m coming up on my retirement window,” Willis assured Connie. “I did my 20 years. I’m out.”

It was also a promise to himself. The desire to marry and have children depended on Willis completing his service with the Georgia Army National Guard. “If I want to have a family,” Willis reasoned, “I want to be at home.”

Willis was born in Arkansas but grew up in Georgia and, when he wasn’t stationed abroad, lived there most of his life. He even met Connie on a hiking trip in Atlanta, and they were planning to marry soon. So when she called with news that she’d accepted a job in North Carolina, Willis knew what he had to do.

That September, three days before Hurricane Florence made landfall, Willis returned from Cuba to meet Connie at their new home in New Bern. With the final overseas assignment behind him, it was time to start a family.

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Scratching an itch

Almost every generation of the Willis family — his grandfather, his mother, his father — had served in the Army. “It was just a normal thing,” Willis said. So when his turn came in 2000, as a high school junior, Willis enlisted with the National Guard.

The 9/11 terrorist attacks the following year shaped foreign policy over the next two decades. Willis spent several years abroad, mostly in Iraq and Afghanistan. During Operation Enduring Freedom, he was trained in French as a human intelligence specialist.

"The biggest thing that I learned from the military is how to work as a team,” Willis said. “There is no individual anything.”

In 2019, Willis and Connie married, and welcomed their son, Wyatt, that October. Willis said he immediately adapted to the new rigorous schedule of parenting as a stay-at-home dad, even if he isn’t the greatest cook.

“For two months it was just amazing,” said Willis, now 40. “All I did was push our son around in his stroller — and fish.”

Though the days were fulfilling, something had gnawed at Willis since his return from a vacation trip to Hawaii with Connie. While there they had stayed with a friend of hers, a traveling nurse. Willis left intrigued, determined to scratch this new itch. Maybe, he thought, being newly retired meant an opportunity to go to school.

Dustin Willis at station
The fast-paced environment at Novant Health New Hanover Regional Medical Center appealed to Willis.

“The idea of becoming a nurse had been building up slowly,” Willis said. “I always enjoyed the medical training we got in the Army. So I said, ‘You know, I think I’m going to become a nurse.’”

In 2020, Willis enrolled in the associate nursing program at Craven Community College in New Bern. A clinical instructor encouraged him to check out Novant Health New Hanover Regional Medical Center in Wilmington. He was told it promised a fast-paced environment and intense training. Willis was sold. He felt especially invigorated after meeting clinical nurse educator Jim Holtvoigt, who handles residency onboarding for nurses-in-training.

This level of career transition to clinical practice can often challenge retired Army medics or Navy corpsmen making the switch, Holtvoigt said. “But I haven’t seen one inkling of that being a problem for Dustin. He seems to have fit right in. He’s a great guy to have on our team.”

For Willis, the feeling is mutual. “As crazy as the ER can be, I absolutely love it,” he said.

No ‘I’ in team

Willis graduated in May and began his residency training at Novant Health Emergency Department in Scotts Hill. Willis is one of only three men in his cohort of 30 graduates, Holtvoigt said, marking a rare profession where men are underrepresented. Last year, men made up only 13% of the country’s 3.2 million registered nurses, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Willis’s family has since moved to Jacksonville to be closer to work. Over the summer he learned that the number of available clinical staff can fluctuate daily, but the team structure never wavers. In October, Willis rotated to the emergency room at Novant Health New Hanover Orthopedic Hospital. He treats patients of all ages, from infants to seniors, and injuries ranging from mild to severe. Willis said these are stressful days — but he feels at home again. For one thing, every day is different.

“That’s one of the best parts about nursing,” Willis said. “You can learn something new, especially in the emergency room, almost every day.”