In December 1991, Jessica Gardom, age 50, had just moved to Washington, D.C. to take a position in the Department of Health and Human Services. In January, the United States military began bombing Baghdad as part of Operation Desert Storm and Gardom, a member of the Air Force Reserve since 1979, received a phone call she would never forget.
“They called me and said, ‘you need to pack your bags – and bring sunscreen,’ and I figured that meant I was going to the Persian Gulf,” Gardom said. “Two days later I was on a plane with 15 members of my unit. We were all either nurses or medical technicians.”
Gardom was thrilled to serve her country as a nurse – a career path she chose several decades earlier as a single mom of two young children. Her career trajectory was not an easy one for a working mom in the 1970s. But for Gardom the easy path was never an option.
Finding Her Calling
A native to Arizona, Gardom currently resides at Vi at Grayhawk, a Vi and Plaza Companies community. In her late 20s Gardom, recently separated and living in a small Arizona town, worked as a telephone operator, “I knew I couldn’t support two kids on my salary,” she said. She took an opportunity offered by the Lyndon Johnson administration to go to school and become a nurse.
“I began at a community college and my sisters and I shared child care,” she said. “I was able to finish school at Arizona State University, and I became a nurse working at my first job at Maricopa County Hospital.”
The hospital, which happened to have the only tuberculosis (TB) ward in Arizona, would lead Gardom on a career path that would consistently put her ahead of the curve when it came to health trends affecting our nation. Her TB experience would lead to a job working with a local non-profit group on a TB treatment program in downtown Phoenix. Following that, a position opened up at the state health department where Gardom worked in a program for immunizations. Each opportunity seemed to naturally transition to the next, and she began to hone in on her passion: public health.
“It’s so interesting in your career how you open one door and the next door is there, and then the next,” she said. “And you never know in life – it’s not like you can just plan what you want to do and do it.”
A Parallel Path
Even with her job at the state, being a single mom with two children was tough financially, and Gardom realized she needed a second income to support her family. “Nurses didn’t make much money then – I made about $15,000 so I decided I needed a part-time job.”
While some single mothers might have chosen a retail job, or working odd jobs to help pay the bills, that wasn’t who Gardom was – she had dreams that were much broader. Her choice of a second job: joining the Air National Guard in Arizona.
“I was one of 100 people who applied, and I was hired because they had problems with their immunizations program and I had experience in the area,” she said. “It was 1979 when I began that job, and I was still working for the state health department. The two positions worked together well.”
Following her role at the state health department, Gardom would accept a full-time job with the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) that would take her to Atlanta, Georgia. While in Atlanta, Gardom found a Reserves unit in nearby Montgomery, Alabama where she would continue her duty each year until her retirement from the unit in 1999.
Creating a Legacy
After returning from her activation in the Gulf, Gardom would eventually make her way back to Atlanta to the CDC where she would continue to work in HIV prevention.
“Generally, the CDC hired men with liberal arts degrees for positions like mine," she said. "I was the only nurse hired for about 10 years, even though there were many nurses in state health department programs. I was hired because the man who was in charge of the immunization program wanted to recruit people with different backgrounds."
Following her retirement from the CDC in 2010, Gardom packed her bags and headed home to Arizona. With most of her family still in the area, Gardom initially moved in with one of her four sisters in Phoenix. Another sister, Melody, had recently moved into Vi at Grayhawk with her husband. It was during trips to visit the couple that Gardom felt the community was a natural fit for her as well and decided to move in.
Today, Gardom enjoys spending time with her six grandchildren, and being involved in activities at Vi like outings, group lunches, and happy hours. While she’s enjoying her retirement, she acknowledges that her career choices were never easy, and that she worked hard for her successes – especially given her status as a single woman in an era full of obstacles for women like her.
“I was lucky – but I also put in a lot of work!” she said. “It was a great deal of work to go back to school as a single mother with two children, but you do what you have to do. I had a wonderful career in both of my jobs and was able to retire from the military as a Lieutenant Colonel. I had many wonderful experiences and really couldn’t have asked for better.”