Doris Merrill

U.S. Navy Veteran
94 years old
Titusville, Florida

In 1944, Doris Merrill became a Yoeman in the United States Navy as a 20-year-old, serving as a transcriptionist through the WAVES (Women Accepted for Volunteer Emergency Service) program. A zeal for life and a passion for learning, despite her father’s thoughts on the matter, led Merrill to serve in the Navy during World War II.

A high-security clearance had Merrill in rooms with high-ranking Navy officials, her finger on the pulse of the United States Navy’s strategic maneuvers. What went on in those rooms will forever remain secret, as Merrill vows never to divulge any of the top secret information she was privy to: ”I never even told my husband, who was a Marine that was guarding us at that time.”

One thing Merrill will share is that she loved her work and she was able to learn a great deal through her service: “I would work until two in the morning and, you know what, I loved it! You can’t believe, those men, that didn’t want women in the service, they treated me royally. They taught me everything.”

The Marine guarding Merrill and the other WAVES at the hotel where they stayed eventually became her husband, and she left her position in the service to start a family. It was when she was pregnant with her first child, her son, Pepper, that Merrill was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis (MS), a diagnosis she refused to accept: “I didn’t know what it was and I wouldn’t accept that I had it. I didn’t want it, so I didn’t have it.”

But Merrill did have to accept that she had MS when she was unable to hold and independently care for her infant son for the first three months, and especially when she had temporary blindness. Over time, however, Merrill’s symptoms improved enough to enable her to go to college, graduate with honors, and enjoy a long teaching career at both the primary and secondary levels.

In every facet of her life, Merrill exemplifies the tenacious spirit that makes her an excellent competitor at the National Veterans Wheelchair Games each year. When she first attended college as an adult, juggling a full curricular schedule while being a full-time wife and mother proved to be extremely challenging. When she told her husband that she was finding her return to school difficult, his response was to tell her to quit: “And then my husband said to me, ‘If it’s too hard, you just give it up. You can’t do it.’ Well, that’s all I needed. He doesn’t think I can do it and I did it! And then I graduated in three-and-a-half years and with honors. And, I was named the Wilkes College Education Woman of the Year.”

When a rec therapist introduced Merrill to adaptive sports, she says, “It gave me a bridge to the walking world.” Before competing in the National Veterans Wheelchair Games in 1999, Merrill says, “I would stay at home looking at the walls. Television was my best companion.”

Through her participation in adaptive sports, Merrill discovered independence she didn’t know existed: “I found out I can do things for myself. I don’t have to have someone waiting on me hand and foot. Before this, they did. I don’t think I even tried to do what I had to do. I’m so much better now than I was in 1999, it’s unbelievable.”

In her almost twenty years of competing in the Games, Merrill has amassed an impressive number of medals and even held some records, but nothing beats the feeling of camaraderie. The people make the Games: “When you have 500 people that are in wheelchairs, you don’t feel sorry for yourself. No one there feels sorry for themselves. We try our best, and we root for one another.”

After almost 20 years of competing in the National Wheelchair Games, and at 94 years old, Merrill’s perspective has shifted, but only a little. She’s trying a new sport this year — Bocce — and prefers to compete against at least four or five people (it’s no fun when there are only three competitors to medal), but Merrill also loves to help other athletes who may be struggling. Of the Games, she says, “I love to play. I love to join in the Games. But, if I see someone having trouble, I don’t try to pass them up. It’s alright. I’m like a mother to them. I’m the oldest. And I don’t care. I just, I want to mother them…if they want me to.”

For those veterans who are on the fence about trying adaptive sports or competing in the Games, Merrill offers this: “Please come and try out. You don’t know what you can do until you try. Maybe you can’t do it that day, but there’s always another day. And if you can’t make it then, try it the next day. You’ll make it. Maybe it will take another day. Just keep trying, God will help you along the way.”