Lt. Staci Jones sits perfectly erect and speaks with the confidence one would expect of a naval officer who managed nuclear reactors on an aircraft carrier for two tours. With luminous green eyes the exact color of the military fatigues she wears, she’s focused on her future — one that upon her graduation from the Medical University of South Carolina's College of Pharmacy will take her to Bethesda, Maryland, to begin her dream job as an inpatient pharmacist at Walter Reed National Military Center.
Jones knew early she wanted to be a pharmacist. For an eighth grade social studies project, she was required to research careers she might find interesting. She loved science and thought at first she might enjoy a career in orthopaedics. But her mom planted a different seed.
“My mom knows me and how social I am,” Jones said. “She suggested I consider pharmacy. She was right. There is so much to love about being a pharmacist. It’s ever changing. You’re always learning. New drugs are continually coming out. You get to help people. And, the hours are good for raising a family. It was back then that my love for pharmacy started to grow.”
And while it was her heart’s desire, when it came time to apply to schools during her senior year, she worried she might not be mature enough for college or pharmacy school. What if she spent $100,000 and found out she didn’t like it? That worried her. Her mother suggested looking into the military. And with that, life took her in a very different direction for a decade.
In 2004, she took her mom’s advice and visited a Navy recruiter. She’d always wanted to travel the world, and the Navy seemed like just the ticket. Plus, being from New Hampshire — the Live Free or Die state — she’d always felt patriotic.
The recruiter was blown away by her ASVAB scores, she recounted. She’d taken the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery test in high school, never thinking it might come in handy.
He told her she qualified to be a “nuke.” Signing on to work with nuclear reactors on aircraft carriers or submarines was a competitive and selective process — she found herself in an elite category. The recruiter offered her a signing bonus on the spot, and soon she was bound for a six-year commitment, beginning with a year-and-a-half training in Goose Creek at the Naval Nuclear Power Training Command Center. She was then stationed in Washington, where she would spend 4 ½ years on an aircraft carrier.
Pharmacy school was on hold, but she would see the world in the meantime.
A man's world
Historically, the Navy has been a male-dominated profession, and that includes being a nuke. Jones was assigned to the USS John C. Stennis, a Nimitz-class nuclear-powered supercarrier. It was a rocky start. When she first stepped on board, an enlisted man asked when she was going to get pregnant and get out. Considering he knew nothing about her, that seemed amazingly rude.
Today, she puts it in perspective.
“That mindset is pretty common,” she said. “It was wrong, but in some ways understandable. There are certain perceptions when women join the nuke team, and the men tend to be apprehensive. It’s difficult for the team when women leave the ship to have a baby, and we have an unexpected billet gap that can take a long time to fill and then we have to spend the next few years training that new individual.”
While she realized she was up against some biases, built-in stereotypes were never going to stop Jones. A soccer goalie, gymnast, lacrosse player and all-round good athlete growing up, she was used to long hours, hard work and persevering when things got tough. She had a lot to accomplish, needing to qualify on a minimum of eight different watch stations in order to learn to safely operate very sophisticated equipment.
So she put her head down and set out to surmount the qualification process. At first, she was constantly proving she was one of the guys — that she deserved to be there. And that included not showing emotions, even if she were sad or missing loved ones. While they were at sea, she devised a plan that got her through.
“I’ve always had guy friends and got along very well with guys. So I thought to myself, ‘You know what, I’ll show them.’ I decided to cope by staying up for 24 hours at a time and working in the propulsion plant getting qualified. Then I’d be so exhausted, I’d fall right to sleep in my rack. Racks are stacked three high. I absolutely hate crying. Let me sob quietly in my rack? No. That’s horrible,” she said laughing.
Her plan worked — she qualified in about half the time it normally takes to qualify. A machinist, she operated and maintained nuclear reactors — the pipes, valve systems, the impellers for the pump so steam, fresh water, electricity and propulsion could be produced and among other things, launch aircraft from the deck.
After only one year, her chief recognized her exceptional work ethic, leadership skills and willingness to take risks.
“‘Staci, you’re a hard worker, he told me: “‘I want you to be in charge of all the maintenance during this major shutdown period. I promise you, I’ll be here for you, and we’ll work through this. It’s going to be extremely hard and challenging, but we’ll back you up.’”
He lived up to those promises. She felt blessed to have the type of amazing leaders who were willing to mold and teach her. The Navy was a good fit for her, she said.
Still, being a nuke was a tough life. They are excluded by others because of their work and the confidentiality of the reactor areas. They get little shore leave and stand watch constantly. It wasn’t unusual for her to work 12-hour days and 80-hour weeks.
But there were other perks to standing watch. During 2007, she stood watch with another nuke, an electronics technician named Chad Jones. He first became a friend, later her husband. She pursued the naval career, and he soon left for the private sector. By doing so, he became the bedrock that enabled her to follow her dreams.
During the 2007 deployment, the Stennis was involved in operations Enduring Freedom and Iraqi Freedom, and its crew was integral to the war efforts. While much of it was stressful, travel took her to Dubai, Singapore, Hong Kong, Thailand, Japan and South Korea.
She loved being in the Navy, but the yearning to become a pharmacist persisted. She shared her aspirations with her command master chief and was amazed by his “gracious reaction.” He told her about a scholarship program where she could remain enlisted, and the Navy would put her through school. She could become an officer and a pharmacist in the Navy. There were college instructors aboard the aircraft carrier. She availed herself of everything the Navy offered.
Wash, rinse, repeat
In 2010, she re-enlisted for four years and was stateside by the end of that year. Soon she would be back at the power school, this time teaching. They had their first daughter in 2012, as she taught full time, completed her BS online and began taking pharmacy school prerequisites. By day, she was a leading petty officer and advisor to the younger students and herself, a student by night. Day after day, she worked from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m., went to school from 6 to 9, came home and did homework — first with a baby and then pregnant, chasing a toddler. The schedule was grueling.
“It was a very challenging time, but I had a goal in sight. I never would have made it through any of this without my husband who sacrificed so much so I could do this,” Jones said emphatically.
It was 2013. Finally, her time had come. When she called the college, Jones never expected to find herself on the phone with Philip Hall, Pharm.D., dean of the college. He put her mind at ease, conveying the college’s respect for the military and inviting her for a personal tour. MUSC was the right program, she decided, and quickly took the Pharmacy College Admission Test and applied. Still there was one possible obstacle — the Navy requires scholarship applicants to have been accepted already into a program. If MUSC accepted her, she would need to defer for a year.
The stars aligned. In June, Hall personally called her and shared the news that she’d been accepted, and her deferment was approved. She submitted her scholarship package to the Navy in August. It was an agonizing wait, but in February she learned she had received one of two available scholarships.
Hall was pleased it all worked out. “We try to make studying pharmacy at MUSC an intimate experience in an expansive setting and provide a sense of family for our students. I love the opportunity to talk with interested students, especially such determined ones like Staci. We wanted to do everything we could to make it work for her, and fortunately we could. She’s a remarkably focused woman who has accomplished great things both in the Navy and at MUSC. We are proud to call her one of our own,” Hall said
When her first daughter was 19 months old, she gave birth to her second daughter. She re-enlisted for six more years and soon started pharmacy school with a full naval scholarship. She was ecstatic. A goal she’d worked hard for since the eighth grade was finally coming to fruition. She said she couldn’t begin to describe the emotions.
Four years later, she prepares to graduate with a Pharm.D. She finds herself nostalgic, contemplating the sacrifices she and her husband made. She wishes she could have spent more with their girls, but at least she’s always been there to kiss them at night.
Balance, she said, has been her biggest struggle. She leaned on faculty a lot.
“Most nukes are men. I never saw women stay in. I did not feel that support. Most guys have stay-at-home wives, so they don’t understand how much I had to juggle. I had no one to talk to about it until I went to pharmacy school. I would ask my faculty how they did it. What were they doing to keep the delicate balance of being a good wife and good mother and still be a good pharmacist. Having been on deployments and seeing how hard military members work and the sacrifices they make, I never want to take for granted the time I have with my family.”
Professors and administrators praise the remarkable job she’s done excelling in school while balancing so much. Soon, she, Chad, and the two girls — 6-year-old Caralyn and 4½-year-old Samantha — head to Bethesda. She’ll be working at Walter Reed. She said it’s a special hospital because wounded warriors are treated there. When she was there in January, President Trump was getting his yearly physical.
She’s excited about the future and grateful for the past.
“The Navy and MUSC have given me so much. MUSC took a chance on me. To have this faculty to teach me — I had no excuse not to excel. I can’t talk enough about how much I love MUSC and the pharmacy team and how impressed I am about how much they cared. Every single faculty member genuinely cares. They always made time. I was so impressed with all that MUSC has to offer. I got such a great education. So, I want to give back any way I can.”