Heather Thompson

Project Control Specialist, Substation Engineering |
Chattanooga, Tenn.

Like many military veterans, Heather Thompson was a different person when she returned to civilian life in 2007 after serving her country for four years.

Now a project control specialist in Transmission’s Substation Engineering group, Thompson says she was a sheltered, small-town Southern girl when she enlisted in the Navy Seabees in 2003. “Except for a couple of trips to Chattanooga, I’d never been out of Spring City, Tenn. I didn’t know what the world was like. I returned home older and wiser, but also tougher and colder.”

After boot camp and heavy equipment operator training, Thompson landed as an “Alpha Dawg” in the “Fighting Forty,” a construction battalion.

Naval equipment operators and mechanics are all known as Alpha Dawgs, says Thompson. “It’s a traditionally male group, so I didn’t get an especially warm welcome. A lot of the guys didn’t think women should be in the military, and they certainly didn’t think women belonged in construction. I had to prove myself over and over.”

Thompson was an E-5, 2nd Class Petty Officer when she left the Seabees in 2007 due to an injury.

Four-Legged Friendship

“I grew up a lot during my four years in the Navy,” Thompson says. “I learned a lot about people, teamwork and trust, and I’d do it over again. But military service changed me in ways I didn’t expect. I looked at life differently when I got out. It wasn’t about me and my family any more. It was about survival—what was around the next corner, who was out there to get me. I was always on edge; I couldn’t relax. I was an emotional basket case and didn’t know why.”

Thompson tried going back to school, but says she couldn’t deal with the pressure. “I dropped out with only six classes left for an associate’s degree,” she remembers. “I tried the Veterans Affairs clinic, but that was a struggle, too.”

Help eventually came on four legs.

In 2013, a friend gave Thompson a black Lab puppy. Her dad, Mark Podbielski, a maintenance specialist at Watts Bar Nuclear Plant, suggested the name that stuck: “Abby Normal” from the “Whose Brain Did I Put In” scene in the Mel Brooks’ movie, “Young Frankenstein.”

Not long after, Thompson heard about a service dog-training program. As soon as Abby was old enough, the pair enrolled.

“Abby changed my life. She helps keep me calm. My husband says that I’ve done a complete 180 since I got her. She’s given me back my confidence. I’ve even re-enrolled in college.”

Finding Healing in Helping Others

Thompson wants vets suffering with PTSD, post traumatic stress disorder, to know what a difference a service dog can make in their life. “I’ve joked about making Abby her own Facebook page so people can get a glimpse into the life of a service dog—and I just may do it,” she jokes.

But she’s serious about helping vets re-enter civilian life. She is active in veterans associations at TVA and Chattanooga State Community College with the goal of helping vets connect with needed services and with each other.

The chance to help others is also what motivates her at work, she says.

“At TVA, I provide support for substation engineering projects, mostly related to commissioning,” she explains. “There’s a lot involved from estimating the work-hours to developing daily work schedules. My job ensures that the Area Engineers stay on schedule. I also assist with the final closure of capital projects. This final closure helps ensure that all substation updates are reflected in project drawings.”

She stays focused on her primary mission: “The way I see it, it all boils down to one thing: supporting the area engineers in the field. I do whatever I can to help them get the job done safely so they can go home to their families at the end of the day. I like knowing that my work helps to provide reliable, affordable power to the people we serve, too.”

“That’s what I love about my job—the fact that I help people.”

A Dream that Won’t Die

Growing up, Thompson dreamed of being a horse trainer. She trained her two horses, Chester and Cheyenne, and did everything from barrel racing to show jumping. She also volunteered as a riding instructor for the Highlands Riding Center (formerly Hixon Therapeutic Riding Program) and now serves on their board.

“My dreams still involve horses,” she says with a laugh. “I’d like to get certified in equine-assisted psychotherapy and bring equine therapy to veterans in the Chattanooga area.”

Service is important to Thompson. “I’m glad to have had the chance to serve my country,” she says. “I understand the honor of military service now more than I did then. And I feel incredibly fortunate to be part of a company that serves the people of the Valley.”

But serving other Vets is her passion. “Given my own struggles and the struggles I’ve seen other vets go through, I’ve got to do something,” she says emphatically. “One estimate is that 22 veterans commit suicide every day. That’s unacceptable to me. All it takes is one word, one friendship, to literally save someone’s life.”

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