On Valentine’s Day 2002, LeNora Hickman Harley ‘21 shipped out to Fort Jackson in Columbia, South Carolina, to start basic training as a new enlistee in the U.S. Army Reserve.
Ten months later, Harley woke up on Christmas morning and heard her doorbell ringing. One of her sergeants was standing at her front door with orders for her to be deployed to Kuwait in preparation for Operation Enduring Freedom.
“I was like ‘Merry Christmas to me,’” Harley said, laughing.
Some of the major moments in Harley’s 20-year military career have coincidentally occurred on a holiday. On Friday, she’ll spend Veterans Day treating patients on the island of O’ahu in Hawaii, where she is stationed until 2024.
Harley initially had no interest in joining the U.S. Army or becoming a nurse. She’s now an officer and an Army nurse after graduating from the UNC Greensboro School of Nursing as its senior class president in 2021.
UNCG’s Veterans Access Program
Harley was 36 and the mother of an 8-year-old son, Chris, in 2019 when they moved to Greensboro so she could start taking classes in the School of Nursing through its Veterans Access Program (VAP).
The VAP provides support for military veterans, active reservists, and active duty military to earn their bachelor of science in nursing (BSN) from UNCG. Twenty-one VAP students were in Harley’s graduating class from the School of Nursing.
“We were a very, very close-knit group regardless if we were active duty or Reserve or whether we were Army, Air Force, like it didn’t matter,” Harley said. “We were just very close, and we looked out for each other.
“I think for us it was just second nature. In the military, we’re always taught to take care of one another, so that’s something that we definitely did with each other. And even to this day, we still keep in contact.”
Deployed to Kuwait
Growing up in Chesterfield, Virginia, Harley watched as her single mom worked as a nurse at a nursing home. Harley, however, didn’t want to join the nursing profession.
It didn’t seem like a good fit for her. In 2002, while attending a community college, she enlisted in the U.S. Army Reserve to avoid taking on more student loans.
“I wanted nothing to do with the military,” Harley said. “I had my life planned, so I thought at 17, 18 years old.”
Harley was deployed to Kuwait in early 2003 as the U.S. was preparing for the Iraqi war. She was stationed there for around six months, first at Camp Arifjan and then at the main Joint Mail Terminal in Kuwait City. As a postal specialist, she helped set up postal units and sort the mail that arrived in Kuwait. She then got the mail loaded onto trucks, so it could be delivered to the troops in Kuwait and Iraq.
Harley was eventually sent back to the U.S. to be treated at Walter Reed National Military Medical Center in Washington DC after getting injured in Kuwait. She couldn’t have imagined that she’d someday walk into a military hospital as a nurse, not a patient.
Becoming a VAP Student
Harley remained in the Army Reserve while working toward earning a bachelor’s degree in dance movement therapy in 2008.
However, like many college graduates at the time, she had a difficult time finding a job. She applied to graduate school, but she decided instead to go active duty and accept a full-time job with the Army Reserve.
“I was working really hard to become a social worker in the Army, and it just seemed like every door that I approached was slammed in my face,” Harley said. “And so then my commander placed this packet on my desk and was like ‘Hey, have you heard about this Army nursing program?’ I was like ‘Ah, I kind of heard about it, but ma’am, I don’t want to be a nurse. That’s not for me.’”
Harley’s commander left the packet on her desk anyway. One day, she picked up the packet and read about the program to become an Army nurse.
It made sense to her.
Nursing Becomes an Option
On Facebook, Harley saw a post from a person who had gone through the Army’s nursing program boasting about the new Nursing and Instructional Building that was being built on UNCG’s campus. The person also spoke highly about the School of Nursing.
Harley listened to the recommendation and enrolled at UNCG to earn her BSN.
“LeNora was a leader from the moment she walked through our School of Nursing doors,” said Dr. Susan Letvak, a professor and the VAP director in the School of Nursing. “Despite being active duty military and a transfer student without longer term peer relationships, LeNora was elected to president of the class, a position made far more difficult as her senior class was the ‘Covid class’ that went virtual with very little notice.
“LeNora is a transformative leader for the profession of nursing.”
In May 2021, when the School of Nursing canceled its in-person commencement because of the coronavirus, Harley organized an outdoor ceremony, so the Class of 2021 could still be recognized. School of Nursing faculty and staff members cheered as new graduates and their families drove in a parade of cars through an empty parking lot.
It Was Meant to Be
Harley now works as a nurse on a progressive care floor at Tripler Army Medical Center in Honolulu, Hawaii. The large facility is known around O’ahu for its coral pink color.
“It’s definitely a higher level of critical thinking sometimes just because my patients can be talking to me one minute and the next minute I’m calling a code to send them to ICU or to upgrade their level of care,” she said.
Harley and her son, now 11, will spend the next few years in Hawaii until she gets her next military assignment. Coincidentally, Myla Freeman, a fellow VAP graduate and one of Harley’s close friends from the School of Nursing, is also stationed in Hawaii as a nurse.
“We literally live one mile from each other, work at the same hospital. Initially, we started on the same floor,” Harley said. “It was like ‘OK, this was just meant to be.’”
Story by Alex Abrams, School of Nursing
Photography by Jiyoung Park, University Communications, LeNora Harley