Valerie Essman came from a long line of service to others. Deciding between entering the medical field or wearing a military uniform was hard, so she did both.
“My great grandfather was what they called a ‘tank sealer’ who worked with aircraft fuel systems, more specifically he worked on the beginnings of Lockheed Martin’s ‘Skunk works’ SR-71 project,” she explained. Both Essman’s great-grandmothers were nurses.
Her grandfather would go on to enlist in the Navy working with guided missiles and eventually her own father built a career in aviation dispatch. Though Essman would initially try being a flight attendant, she felt like something was missing.
“I enlisted as an Aerospace Medical Technician and truthfully, in the beginning, I had no idea what that entailed. I was blissfully taking the challenge and it ended up being exactly what I wanted. As a medic in the Air Force, you can be attached to a multitude of different squadrons or areas and at my first duty station I was assigned to the 39th medical operations squadron in the Ambulance Services Department,” she explained. “I had a short deployment to work at a Contingency Aeromedical Staging Facility which changed everything for me. Seeing and caring for critically ill and injured servicemen and women from down range left a lasting impression.”
Not long after that rotation, she applied for an aeromedical evacuation mission and was accepted. “What’s better than configuring an aircraft into a hospital and maintaining lives while in flight? Obviously, it’s easier said than done but it was truly my pleasure to care for wounded warriors around the world and I’d do it again,” Essman shared.
A few years ago, she transitioned out of the military to raise her son Cruz and build a career in nursing for the civilian sector.
“Through the GI bill and my education prior to the military, I was able to obtain my Associate Degree in Nursing and my Bachelor of Science in Nursing and am a Registered Nurse for medically fragile pediatric patients, mostly neurologically impaired children, which impacts everything for them. I’m passionate about caring for them and providing the most quality of life that I possibly can,” Essman explained. “I’m also passionate about recovery for sex trafficking victims. There is an organization that I am involved with called Traffick911 which supports recovery and restoration for victims.”
Her son Cruz was diagnosed with autism as a toddler, creating unique needs for the family.
“I think sometimes when people hear the word autism, they attach a look or a behavior to it and assume that the person would be very standoffish and show no affection or any interest in other people. But that is not always the case,” Essman said. “I hope people understand that there is no specific ‘look’ to autism. It’s just the way his brain is processing things and is referred to as neurodivergence.”
With Cruz’s diagnosis comes therapies to support his needs and with her busy work schedule and life as a single-parent, Essman wasn’t often finding time to take care of herself. She was nominated for a makeover with Moving with the Military by a friend.
When its CEO, Maria Reed (an Army spouse) asked Essman what room needed the most love, she was quick to request a sensory room for Cruz, rather than anything for herself. She had no idea she’d be getting both.
“My hopes are that there will be a safe place for my son to engage with things that meet his sensory needs, inspire him, and create a space where we can bond together. Honestly, I was really surprised and humbled we were chosen,” she admitted. “I just feel so grateful for even being considered. Anything that is done will just be so impactful and I’m already so thankful in advance.”
Though readers will have to wait until later in the spring to watch the filmed episode for Essman’s makeover surprise on Moving with the Military, they can rest assured the Air Force Flight Medic veteran was overwhelmed by the results. She was greeted by the cheering voices of over 20 volunteers from the show’s title sponsor, Caliber Home Loans.
“As a mom to a special needs son and combat-wounded veteran spouse, I know on a personal level how hard it is to try and prioritize it all. As an organization we pride ourselves in being able to step forward to do things for those that serve. It was our honor to be a part of this makeover,” Brittany Boccher, Director of Military Lending Community Engagement at Caliber stated.
Looking back over her time in service and life now, Essman remains filled with gratitude.
“If you are around Cruz often, you will hear him say ‘big hug’ all throughout the day and those hugs are the best thing I could ask for,” she said. “I can’t forget to mention my family in general, especially my mom. Without their support it would be very difficult and I’m eternally grateful.”