Annie Gardner

Branch: Navy

Duty Station: Naval Air Station North Island

Number of Deployments: 10

Number of PCS's: 4

Share your military spouse story:
My husband, Jake, and I joke that our story could be a movie. It starts in small town Iowa. He is a star football player, she a cheerleader. His freshman year, he makes varsity. His first game, he looks up and sees the glowing cheerleader, hair flowing, pom poms shaking. Roll cheesy music and que slow motion. He swears it’s love at first sight. She is oblivious. We didn’t officially begin a relationship until boot camp when Jake sent a letter professing his long-held feelings. We went on a date and love bloomed. Unfortunately, tragedy struck soon after we began dating in the form of 9/11. I was in college and Jake was stationed on USS CARL VINSON. It was the first carrier to respond to the conflict and became our first deployment experience. Due to long hours, lack of communication tools and other family crises, our relationship fizzled, and we lost contact. Jake got married. I got engaged. Life went on. That is, until the next letter arrived from Jake from Italy. Both newly single, he again professed his love; I again reciprocated. We began anew, entering this phase clear eyed about what it would take to make a military relationship work. From here, the navy kept throwing curve balls. Just before getting married, Jake was sent on an IA assignment to Cuba for a year. From there, he went straight to deployment onboard USS JOHN C. STENNIS. Planning a wedding was impossible and we eloped when the ship ported in Hawaii, finally making me an official military spouse. Since then, we have faced multiple moves, many deployments and lots of adversity. But we have learned trust, communication, honesty, and to make every day count. Our lives are colored by the depth of our experiences. We have the military life to thank for the most colorful moments. This life is not easy, but it can be rewarding. I am strong, resilient, adaptable, adventurous, compassionate and helpful. I am the best me I can be because of my life as a military spouse.

Share an example of your leadership experience within the military community:
Military spouses are often called to lead. This call may be spontaneous or planned, but each presents opportunities for growth and discovery. Twice, I have had the honor to lead the military community as an ombudsman, once for ATG San Diego and again for USS NIMITZ. An ombudsman is a liaison between the command and the families of a service member. Ombudsman are calm leaders in a crisis. They are volunteers who answer questions, offer resources, provide support and stay calm under stress. They exemplify the qualities of confidentiality, resourcefulness, resiliency, and assistance. During my times as an ombudsman I often led others through crises with compassion and understanding. Ultimately, this role allowed me to help others in need, and thus, serve the military community in a critical leadership role to provide support and resources to families when the service member might not be available.

Describe your involvement in the military community:
Being an involved community member is a cornerstone of creating and sustaining a positive environment. I am an involved community member. I advise Anchored4Life, a club that teaches resiliency skills to kids. Students are empowered as peer-to-peer mentors to help others through deployment, reintegration, moving, fear, homework, making friends, bullying, and healthy choices. They also plan and implement service-learning projects. The skills gained through this club serve the military community in developing future leaders who are thoughtful decision makers, ready to invest in the community. Further, I regularly volunteer for military organizations and support non-profits. I was a spokesperson for spouses during the CPO season. As an ombudsman I was a liaison between the command and families. Plus, I have created book clubs and coffee clubs aimed at connecting military families. As a military spouse I strive to be involved and help others navigate this unique lifestyle.

Describe how you support your community:
Community support and involvement fosters connections and lasting relationships. Building a community where everyone feels connected, valued and heard is critical to military families. I became an educator to help support communities and help kids thrive. I regularly support the community by being a military voice in the governing bodies of various institutions. This includes PTO, Head Start policy council, the urban collaborative project, our community HOA, and city and community councils. Further, I coach youth athletics including, softball, water polo, and volleyball. I lead local girl scout troops and coordinated MOPS groups in multiple places. Currently, I am employed with Safe Harbor Coronado, a local nonprofit that provides skills, supports and resources for mental health and wellbeing. SHC has a unique role in supporting the Coronado community, which has a 40% military population. I am committed to staying involved and making our communities the best they can be.

What do you advocate for? Why?
Our society is facing unprecedented challenges. Substance abuse is increasing. People under 25 are now the loneliest generation. Mental health is suffering. We are a society in crisis crying for coping skills and connections. My nephew recently unalived himself after struggling with his mental health and substance abuse. My mother was a depressed alcoholic who passed away young. Countless others grapple with their mental health and substance abuse. The military lifestyle is a prime catalyst in exacerbating these issues to the nth degree. Thus, I am an advocate for destigmatizing mental health issues and normalizing seeking help. I am an advocate for drug prevention and rehabilitation. I am an advocate for creating connections and relationships to defuse bullying and end isolation. I am an advocate for mental health and wellness so that we can all be seen, heard and accepted for who we are and learn to cope, connect and find self-love in order to live our best, authentic lives.

How have you spread the message of your platform/advocacy?
I am fortunate to work for an amazing non-profit, Safe Harbor Coronado, that allows me a platform to spread the message of advocating for mental health and wellness. Through this platform, I have published articles, including a recent piece about building a toolbox of resources to help with deployment resiliency. Prior to this outlet, I participated in a co-op blog. In other instances, I have worked with various groups such as athletics and girl scouts to engage the media. I am able to communicate through oration or in writing in a clear, organized and thoughtful way.

What do you hope to accomplish with the AFI Military Spouse of the Year® title?
As the AFI Military Spouse of the Year, I would work to destigmatize mental health and normalize seeking help. Just as we go to the doctor regularly for physical check-ups, I would advocate for regular mental health checkups. I would work to make programs, supports, and resources more readily available to active duty for issues such as anger management, depression, and anxiety and teach coping skills to deal with military stress. I believe mental health and wellness is the foundation of overall well-being. If the mind is unwell, everything else suffers - sometimes minimally, sometimes catastrophically. This is not only a navy issue, but the unique environment of the military exacerbates it and help and acceptance is not always easy to find. We all struggle from time to time. If we can all work to feel better, we can all work to be better, and as a natural consequence our world gets better. The AFI Military Spouse of the Year title would be a springboard for action for these goals.


Annie Gardner is a mom, military spouse, and leader. A servant heart and steadfast volunteer. It is clear to see Annie’s devotion to her children, but it is in how Annie devotes herself to her community that I want to highlight. Annie’s willingness to dedicate so much time to her community makes her shine as a military spouse. Annie not only devotes herself to her daughters Girl Scout troops, but she also volunteers as an advisor for Anchored4life, a 4th and 5th grade leadership program designed to help military kids cope with deployments, and reintegrating. Her landmark dedication to the program has been an honor to witness. Annie’s wealth of knowledge and her ability to share her experiences are what I found to be most impactful to her fellow military spouses and to her community. It is an honor to nominate Annie Gardner as a Navy Spouse of the Year. The Coronado community has been positively impacted by Annie’s leadership and her dedication is worthy of this nomination.
- by Crystal Bettenhausen-Bubulka