Service Defines Military Life, Future Plans for Joe May

Joe May served 13 years as a corpsman in the US Navy. Now he's applying his life experiences to his coursework as a Gustavus nursing major.
Posted on November 11th, 2019 by

US Navy veteran and Gustavus junior Joe May onboard a submarine.

US Navy veteran and Gustavus junior Joe May onboard a submarine.

One hundred fifty-five men left Bangor, Washington aboard the USS Ohio. Joe May had one job: keep them safe.

For six months.


Sometimes, his days as a US Navy Corpsman seem like a lifetime ago. But two years after stepping down from active duty, the Le Sueur, Minnesota, native continues to keep his medical skills sharp as a junior nursing major at Gustavus Adolphus College.

After graduating high school in 2002, May took some courses at the University of Minnesota’s Duluth and Twin Cities campuses, but left before declaring a major—he just wasn’t sure what he wanted to do with his life. With a couple years of work under his belt, he began to consider the military. After a few conversations with a recruiter and scoring highly enough on the Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery (ASVAB) to have a range of enlistment options, May joined the Navy in 2004. He chose to be a corpsman, or member of the Navy’s medical team.

May served as a corpsman with the 2nd Battalion of the 11th Marine Regiment.

May served as a corpsman with the 2nd Battalion of the 11th Marine Regiment.

Then it was time to learn the ropes, with two months of basic training followed by three months of hospital corpsman school at Naval Station Great Lakes in Illinois. “I was always interested in service to others and being a corpsman was a good opportunity to do that,” May recalls.

His first orders were to Bethesda, Maryland, to serve in a medical-surgical ward. As a technician working in 12-hour shifts, he “pretty much did anything a civilian nurse would do,” May explains. Not long after he began his rotations, Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans. With just a few days’ notice, he found himself headed for the Gulf Coast on the USNS Comfort, one of the Navy’s two 1,000-bed Mercy-class hospital ships. For seven weeks, May’s team supported relief operations and provided free medical care to nearly 2,000 residents affected by the hurricane.

“I learned really quickly how important it is to be flexible and adaptive to the needs of the patient,” May says. Back in Bethesda, he rounded out his two-year assignment with work in an immunization ward.

Then, his days in a hospital setting were over. May was assigned to Camp Pendleton, California, where he would train with, support, and ultimately deploy to Iraq as a field medic with the 2nd Battalion of the 11th Marine Regiment. He earned the right to wear the Fleet Marine Force insignia, a badge reserved for US Navy personnel who serve with US Marine units and pass physical, weapons, communication, and small-unit tactical qualifications.

After training with his unit and providing day-to-day clinical support on base and mobile medical support during field training operations, May went to Iraq in 2008. Operating out of the Camp Corregidor in the city of Ramadi, his team was a civil affairs unit responsible for rebuilding infrastructure, staging elections, and managing the bidding/contracting process for projects. To do this, they partnered with tribal leaders and elected officials, got feedback on building priorities from the public, and worked to resolve the inevitable conflicts that arose between various groups.

“Teamwork was the big thing in Iraq,” May says. “Serving in an environment like that, it’s really important to lean on the people next to you and support them as well.”

May (front row, center) with members of his unit in Iraq.

May (front row, center) with members of his unit in Iraq.

During the occasional downtime that he had in Iraq, May fired up his laptop and joined a relatively new social media website—Facebook. There, he would trade messages back and forth with people from home, reconnecting with friends, family, and one old acquaintance from high school, a young woman named Elizabeth Johnson. The two hit it off, building a long-distance relationship that blossomed once May returned from Iraq and was back to a more regular schedule at Camp Pendleton. Johnson moved to California so the two could be together.

Then the Navy came calling again. Orders this time were to report to Groton, Connecticut, for advanced training at the Naval Undersea Medical Institute. May put away his combat boots and bid farewell to the deserts of California and Iraq—he was about to become a submariner.

“Undersea medical training is all about learning to operate in an isolated and independent environment,” May explains. “When you’re on a submarine, you’re the only corpsman responsible for the health and wellbeing of everyone on board.”

Back on the West Coast as a newlywed, May was assigned to the USS Nevada, a ballistic missile submarine that serves as part of the United States’ nuclear deterrent strategy. He was the submarine’s corpsman for five multi-month patrols over the next three years. Serving as the only medical expert on the 560-foot boat was “like being a long-haired cat in a room full of rocking chairs,” May recalls, explaining the analogy that one of his corpsman mentors often used to describe the unpredictability of underwater life.

Get a splinter? Go see “Doc” May. Crack your head on the bulkhead and need stitches? Doc has you covered. Need antibiotics to fight an infection? Check. Toothache? He’ll pull the tooth or give you a rudimentary filling, but he’s the first to admit that you might want to see a dentist as soon as you’re back in port.

May graduates from submarine school.

May graduates from submarine school.

As Elizabeth and Joe talked about starting a family, he began to think about leaving active duty. But first, he agreed to take one more assignment, this time on the USS Ohio, because its shared base with the Nevada meant that the young couple wouldn’t have to move again.

Though built to the same specifications as the Nevada, the Ohio is one of four submarines in its class to be retrofitted to serve as a guided missile submarine. It can carry up to 154 Tomahawk Cruise Missiles to support military operations and be used for the delivery of special operations personnel. May’s patrols on the Ohio were longer than the Nevada, up to six months at a time, but the day-to-day work of keeping his fellow sailors healthy was largely the same.

His second patrol on the Ohio ended in February of 2017. He’d been back in port for just 40 hours when his son was born. In the months preceding his birth, Joe and Elizabeth discussed what to name him, bouncing possible ideas back and forth as they prepared for life with their firstborn and Joe’s upcoming separation from active duty. Nothing seemed quite right, but then one of them floated the idea of “Murphy.” With his Irish heritage, May liked the ring of it. They looked up the meaning of the name. Son of Sea Warrior. It was settled.

With 13 years in the Navy under his belt, Petty Officer First Class Joe May (HN1) transitioned from active duty to the Navy Reserve in June 2017, moving back to Le Sueur with Elizabeth and Murphy.

Two years later, May is an active participant in his nursing classes at Gustavus. He helps his classmates along, sharing bits of his hands-on experience as they rotate through clinicals and labs. “My time in the military has given me insight into how my education will be applied in the real world,” says May. “Helping my fellow students talk through the concepts also reinforces them for me, which is really helpful.”

Next year, May will graduate from Gustavus with a bachelor’s degree in nursing. Behind him will be 13 years on active duty, a liberal arts foundation, and a loving family that has supported him around the world and back. In front of him? The opportunity to continue serving others, guided by a wealth of experience and the well-rounded education at Gustavus.

“My life experiences have been sometimes good and sometimes bad, but they brought me here,” May says.

“And I’m right where I need to be.”


Media Contact: Director of Media Relations and Internal Communication Luc Hatlestad


One Comment

  1. Mark Juhan Sallmen says:

    I would first like to thank Joe for his service to our nation and to Gustavus. He is an example of both American and Gustie pride .

    The first man to graduate from the Gustavus nursing program was, I believe, a member of the class of 1968. If memory serves me correctly, he had served in Viet Nam before Gustavus.

    I was the second man to become a Gustavus nurse but I had no prior military service. I do remember walking to downtown St. Peter after I turned 18. to sign up for the draft. I did not end up then going to Viet Nam nor was I a nursing major…until later. When I became a nursing major, I applied to and was accepted into the Army student nurse program. Men were not commonly nurses back then and being art of the military was not popular. Although a member of the class of 1973, I had 2 years ahead at Bethesda in St Paul. In 1975, I was commissioned, on the Gustavus campus, as a first Lieutenant in the US Army. In the Fall of 1975, I attended the Army Nurse Corps officer basic in San Antonio Texas where I received orders for the 2nd General Army Hospital in Landstuhl Germany.

    I learned so very much in the Army about life and nursing. Today, I am still proud to be a veteran and a Gustavus nurse. I thank both the Army and Gustavus for life lessons learned.

    So I read about Joe with pride and consider it an honor to be a fellow veteran and Gustavus nurse with him.

    I pray for the best for him and his family and wonder if he will accept a commission in the Navy Nurse Corps! Thank you Joe