Growing up, Cora Dorsey remembers seeing the pride radiating from her grandfather when he spoke about his service in the U.S. Navy. That image had a profound effect on her.
“When I was in high school, all I wanted to do was join the Navy,” the 2013 Flowery Branch High School graduate said.
But complications seemed to get in the way each time she applied to join the service after graduating. In the meantime, she attended Lanier Technical College and worked at an area retail store. But she never relinquished her aspiration of serving her country like her grandfather, John Dorsey.
Finally in 2015, a new Navy recruiter in Hall County helped Dorsey fulfill her lifelong dream.
“I joined where I could travel the world and be there for my country,” she said, adding she plans to make it a career like her grandfather did. “He inspired me to join the Navy and make that my career. He was happy with what he has done in his.”
Dorsey is on her way to that goal. Last month, the 22-year-old Norfolk, Va., woman returned from her first deployment overseas. She spent seven months working aboard the USS Eisenhower, sailing to Europe and eventually the Middle East.
But the journey to get there was not an easy one.
ENLISTING IN THE NAVY
Dorsey first told her mother, Lisa Cunningham, she wanted to join the Navy when she as a junior in high school. Cunningham didn’t take her seriously.
“Actually, I was like ‘Are you serious?’” Cunningham said. “At this day and time in the world, I couldn’t imagine my child wanted to do that.”
So the mother of three decided to wait. But Dorsey stuck to her decision, repeating her desire her senior year. Cunningham relented and told Dorsey’s grandfather about her decision.
“He was in tears when I told him,” Cunningham said. “She is making him very happy.”
However, Dorsey had to wait two years before earning entry into the Navy. Once she was accepted, she had help along the way.
After enlisting, Dorsey physically prepared for boot camp at the Naval Station Great Lakes in Illinois.
“I would go to the Navy meeting in Gainesville at the recruiting station, and I would work out and take swimming lessons,” said the then-20-year-old who did not know how to swim.
But with her determination, Dorsey learned to swim in merely three days.
“My instructor said I was the fastest learner she had ever had,” she said. “And it made me pass the Navy test.”
LEARNING THE NAVY LIFE
She was as ready as she could be when she started boot camp in June 2015. For two months, she trained with her fellow sailors.
“It was challenging because of all of the working out,” she said. “And you never knew when you would wake up ... and we did a lot of marching.”
But Dorsey had an edge. She marched with the high school band for five years. She not only knew how to march in time, she could play her bass clarinet while doing so forward and backward.
During boot camp, she learned about a range of different subjects and topic, including the chain of command as well as equality among the ranks. The learning never ends.
“Now we are learning how to transition with transgender recruits,” she said.
After two months, Dorsey graduated into the ranks of U.S. Navy. Her family then drove to see her graduate, making it especially moving for her grandfather.
“I haven’t seen him grin and smile so big,” Cunningham said.
John Dorsey said watching his granddaughter becoming a sailor brought back memories.
“It has changed a lot,” he said. “I was in San Deigo and it was outside in 1959 when I went in.
With basic training complete, Dorsey moved into her next assignment — learning about engineering. Fortunately, she had some of the basics because of her engineering classes at Lanier Tech. But it still wasn’t easy.
“It was challenging because we do everything online and through computer classes,” she said, noting she did not enjoy them.
She enjoys more hands-on work, which is what she does in her career aboard the USS Eisenhower. But Dorsey cannot elaborate on her job specifics, because she doesn’t have clearance.
After engineering training came the moment Dorsey looked forward to — her future assignment and station.
Based on their training, some sailors get to choose their station. Dorsey’s assignment, however, is selected at random.
“I told them (Norfolk) was the last place I wanted to go,” she said.
Her reasons were many.
First, the thousands of sailors based there is overwhelming. Second, sailors wait in heavy traffic to get aboard ship since several carriers are based there. Third, Virginia is too close to home for her despite its eight-hour drive from Gainesville.
“I joined the Navy to travel and being close to home is not what I was going for,” she said.
Despite this, the random drawing sent Dorsey to Norfolk.
However, the city has grown on her.
“I like it because I met a lot of cool people, and there is a lot to do there,” she said.
After seven months, Dorsey learned she would deploy, making her happy.
“I just knew we were going to go different places and that’s what I was going to do,” she said.
While sailing on the ship, Dorsey worked in 130-degree heat most of the time. But when the USS Eisenhower docked in a port, she experienced different cultures and food. And the ship also organized different experiences for the crew.
“My favorite was when we drifted in the desert in the car,” Dorsey said, explaining it was drift-driving like in the movies.
Her favorite port, though, was Dubai. In fact, she’s considered seeking a job there in the future.
“It was a calmer lifestyle,” she said. “People didn’t like us, but they did at the same time. The food is really different and really good. The seasoning was more spicy. It was just different from America.”
Cunningham had a different reaction to her daughter’s departure.
“It was absolutely terrible,” she said. “I was so proud she was there. ... But she was unreachable. They would give her a time to call.”
On several occasions in church, Cunningham had her phone on vibrate and held it in her hands to ensure she didn’t miss any calls.
“If it rumbled, I’d get up and go,” she said. “Because she’d only have seven to eight minutes to talk. And if I didn’t have it with me, I would miss my opportunity to speak with her.”
Absence, as they say, makes hearts grow fonder. And when Cunningham learned of her daughter’s return, the family piled into their car, drove eight hours and watched the USS Eisenhower (or USS Ike as Cunningham calls it) dock in Norfolk.
“I couldn’t tell where she was,” Cunningham said, explaining all of the sailors are dressed identically aboard ship. “She finally called me from her cell phone.”
She spotted her daughter and felt awash with emotions.
“It was like the day she was born and they gave her to me,” she said. “She was mine.”
And the best part was Dorsey was given a 12-day leave, allowing her to spend New Year’s with her family in Flowery Branch. It made her mother ecstatic with joy.
“I just loved the fact that she was back home,” Cunningham said.
They spent time together eating out and Dorsey visited friends.
But on Jan. 13, the pair had to say goodbye once again ... until next time.