He’s been around … from Jaybird Hill in Jefferson County to U.S. Army stops at Fort Bliss in El Paso, Texas; Fort Bragg near Fayetteville, N.C.; and Fort Jackson in Columbia, S.C.; to Baghdad, Iraq; Kuwait; Saudi Arabia; Haiti; and back home again.
After 16 years in the U.S. Army as a thrice-decorated combat medic discharged as a staff sergeant, today 58-year-old Will Steward is a response captain with the Knoxville Volunteer Emergency Rescue Squad (KVERS). He came home from the Persian Gulf War after 11 months there with two Bronze Stars and an Army Commendation Medal for Valor. He served in the 912th MASH unit.
If you don’t know about Jaybird Hill, it’s where he was reared. “Jaybird Hill is a small community for blacks in Jefferson County, and it’s a special place,” Steward says.
Professionally, Steward says he was the first nurse employed at Provision Proton Therapy when it opened here in 2005. He’s an imaging nurse and works Monday-Friday with cancer patients. “I’m with them daily, and I get to make them smile and help them with the treatments. Some of them live alone, and they love my hugs and I love their hugs,” he says.
His smile, laugh, voice and outgoing personality are well known at Provision and at the Rescue Squad. As a response captain, he’s on call from home at all hours when he’s not working. He spends his Sundays at the squad’s East Knox County station – Station 1 Headquarters at 512 N. Chilhowee Drive – from 6 a.m. to 7 p.m. When he leaves his real job late in the afternoon, he considers himself on call for the KVERS. His dedication is unquestionable.
“I do love the rescue squad,” he said of his 11 years-and-counting there. “I found a brotherhood here.” In addition to this rescue work, he teaches vehicle rescue classes, is on the heavy rescue team for structure collapses, farm rescues and heavy trucks and trench rescues and teaches first aid for the American Red Cross.
How about rest and sleep? “I get very little sleep,” he says, laughing.
KVERS Deputy Chief John Whited has high praise for Steward: “Will is quite a character, but don’t let him fool you. Will is one of the most compassionate members I have ever known and worked with. I have received numerous accounts of him not only helping in an emergency but just helping strangers with monetary donations. He is one of the best and skilled and a true professional hero every day for the squad.”
This work in healthcare runs in the family. Wife Hope is a nurse anesthetist and his son, Christian, is in training at the Knoxville Fire Department Recruit Academy. But not with the girls. Daughter Catyline, 26, works at an elementary school in Cleveland, Tenn., and daughter Sierra is studying at Mississippi Women’s College.
He’s seen much misery and suffering up close – overseas and here at home. He’s cut people out of cars in horrible accidents. Some were alive. Some were not. How does he deal with it?
“I never look at their faces,” he says. “You have to focus on what you have to do, not on that person’s face or emotions. They’re hurting. I do what I am trained to do to help them. If I know the person has passed, I feel like I’m God’s watchdog, taking care of them, doing it with respect, moving them slowly, maybe like an angel without wings. I do what I can do to get them to a better place.”
(Editor’s Note: This is part of a weekly series – Our Town Heroes – highlighting Knoxville’s emergency-service professionals. Watch for this feature every Monday on KnoxTNToday.com, and if you have suggestions about a first responder/emergency-services professional we should feature, email Tom King.)