By Paul Wood
CHAMPAIGN — After living in five states and two continents and making a few career changes, Navy veteran Maria Heap is thriving in college with her husband, also a veteran.
Heap, 31, is in Parkland College’s Media Productions program and works part-time for WDWS 1400-AM in Champaign as a producer/announcer and board operator. Her husband, Jordan, is at the University of Illinois.
You can still hear a bit of a Southern twang in her voice. Her father was raised in a tiny town in Georgia, entered the service for 22 years and married a Greek woman. Heap grew up on Army bases in Germany.
She was living in Georgia on Sept. 11, 2001, and was 16 years old on that horrific day.
So Heap joined the Navy like her brother, serving from 2003 to 2007.
“There’s a military tradition in my family,” she said. “My grandfather was in the Greek army.”
Why enlist in the Navy?
“I wanted to step outside my comfort zone,” she said.
She was first on the USS Ashland, then on the USS Nimitz.
Heap served two deployments in the Middle East in support of operations Iraqi Freedom and Enduring Freedom, and saw much of the Mediterranean, including Malta, Greece, Bahrain and Jordan.
It was in Jordan that the Ashland was fired on.
“There was a man on a hill with a rocket-propelled grenade launcher,” she said.
“If it hit our ship, it wouldn’t even have dented it. But it made it clear we were in a real war — and that some people in the world don’t like us.”
She first served in damage control, training in firefighting and hazardous materials.
Then she became one of the first female “visit, board, search and seizure” team members while stationed on the Ashland.
But many of the ship’s missions were aimed at increasing goodwill toward the U.S. in the Middle East.
“I got to see a lot of the world and help a lot of people,” she said.
She worked in a shelter for battered women in Kuwait.
“Work like that gave me an opportunity to appreciate my American privilege, not to take it for granted,” Heap said.
After leaving the Navy, she married Jordan Heap, a soldier who was stationed at Fort Stewart, Ga.
In December 2009, he deployed to Iraq for a year. On his return, the two were given orders to be stationed in Germany.
In Germany, she received her first associate degree and began her path to Parkland.
In 2013, the Heaps returned to the U.S., this time in Kentucky for her husband’s final 18 months in the Army.
“We settled on moving to Champaign-Urbana primarily for the University of Illinois — but also because Illinois is my husband’s home state,” she said.
Do you know a veteran who could share a story about his or her military service? Contact staff writer Paul Wood at firstname.lastname@example.org.