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Today is Veterans Day, and UT Knoxville wants to thank the more than 629 faculty, staff, and students who are active duty U.S. military, veterans, reservists, or members of the National Guard. Each day this week we’ve told the story of a UT Knoxville student-veteran.

KNOXVILLE — When she was in the Navy, Melissa Watson was one of the first women trained to use hand-to-hand combat, if needed, during searches of foreign ships in a war zone.

Watson, 35, finished eight years of military service in 2007 and is now at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, working on her master’s degree in therapeutic recreation. She hopes to use her healing hands to work with injured soldiers and veterans.

Melissa Watson
Melissa Watson receives the Enlisted Surface Warfare Specialist pin from her Commanding Officer on the USS Port Royal (CG 73). This pin signifies that she has extensive knowledge of her ship.

Watson began her Navy career as a seaman apprentice and advanced to first class petty officer. She was stationed at the Naval Air Station in Whidbey Island, Washington, a joint shore command with the Canadians. From there, she went to Pearl Harbor in Hawaii, on the USS Port Royal.

While her primary job was being an information systems technician, her secondary job aboard the USS Port Royal was being one of the first female members of the Non-compliant Visit Board Search and Seizure team.

“We were deployed to the Persian Gulf to guard the oil terminals off the coast of Iran and Iraq,” she said. Her team would board all ships coming into the area to search them to make sure nothing was awry.

She and a female shipmate went through a three-week training to be part of the team. They were the first women Navy-wide to finish training and the first sent to a war zone to do actual ship boardings.

“We were trained in hand-to-hand combat and takedowns. We had weapons training and terrorist training by Army Rangers, Navy Seals, and Marine Recon personnel,” she said. “I was bruised up and down my body. It was very difficult and very rewarding all at the same time.”

Melissa Watson
Melissa Watson learning how to take down someone during Non-compliant Visit Board Search and Seizure school in Hawaii.

Watson said the search and seizure team would contact each ship coming into the area. The ships’ crews would let the team aboard and then stay out of the way as team members checked the manifest and did room-by-room inspections.

Although Watson and her teammates were trained to use force if anyone resisted the searches, they never had to use their combat skills.

“We had some hairy situations, but nothing where we had to use our skills. We were grateful for that,” she said.

“Going through the Non-compliant Visit Board Search and Seizure training and actually being able to do the boardings during the war was probably my most memorable moment in the service,” Watson said.

After being discharged from the Navy, Watson returned to UT to finish an undergraduate degree in psychology she’d started prior to enlisting. She graduated in May 2009. After taking a year off to work, she returned to UT for graduate school in August 2010 and will graduate in the spring.

“Being in the military made me want to come back to school and finish, to follow through with things,” she said.

Her military experience also led her down her current career path.

During an illness, she had to leave her ship and stay temporarily on a base in Kuwait. There, she met a lot of convalescing wounded soldiers.

Now in the course of her studies and volunteer work with the adaptive golf clinic sponsored by the Patricia Neal Rehabilitation Center, she’s gotten to know even more wounded veterans, young and old.

“I’m passionate about the military and want to work with the military again, only in a little different capacity,” she said.

C O N T A C T :

Amy Blakely (865-974-5034,