'She waited for us': US Navy veteran Mikki Thompson held on for one last visit from her shipmates

U.S. Navy veteran Mikki Thompson, one of the first women to serve aboard a combat ship on the USS Vella Gulf, held on for one last visit from friends and fellow veterans before she died on Jan. 3.

Pictured from left: U.S. Navy veterans Kelly Soles, Rene' Sweat, Mikki Thompson, Diane Ruhl and Dionne Ross-Bacon visit Thompson in November before her move into hospice care in Bemidji.
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BEMIDJI — For the women serving aboard the USS Vella Gulf, regardless of the challenges they faced, there was always one thing they could count on — the bright, cheery smile of their friend and shipmate Mikki Thompson.

“The one thing I always remember about Mikki is you never saw her without a smile,” said Diane Ruhl, who served with Thompson. “She would have the hardest day, and she’d come around the corner with this big, cheery smile.”

As the first set of women to serve aboard the Vella Gulf, their time in the U.S. Navy wasn’t always easy, but Thompson had a knack for making the hard things more bearable.

Thompson, who joined the Navy in the early 90s after graduating high school, always remembered her time serving fondly. And even after moving to Bemidji to be closer to Leech Lake where her mother's family is from, she kept in touch with her fellow shipmates.

“She had that factor about her that people were just drawn to,” shared Dionne Ross-Bacon, another of Thompson’s shipmates. “If someone was having a bad day, she was the type of person to make you smile and forget about all the hard things we were going through.”


And Thompson’s smile held on through the rest of the challenges in her life, even as she battled cancer over two decades later. When Ruhl and three of her fellow shipmates came to Bemidji to visit her in November, Thompson’s smile was the first thing they saw.

“As soon as we walked in the door, she came around the corner with the biggest smile I’ve seen on her face in a long time,” Ruhl recounted. “You could tell she was in pain, but her eyes had this look saying ‘I’m going to beat this.’”

But after Thompson’s disease became terminal in 2022, her friends knew she only had a short time left and they rallied the troops once more. She held on long enough to see another set of her Navy friends in January, just before her death on Jan. 3 at age 46.

“I truly believe that Mikki was waiting for them,” Ruhl shared. “She held on, and I’m so glad that they made it in time.”

A life in the Navy

Even from a young age, Thompson seemed destined for a life at sea.

“(Mikki’s mother) said that even as a baby ‘boat’ was one of her first words,” shared Christy Spaulding, one of the shipmates who visited Thompson in January. “She would see a boat and just go crazy. As soon as she got out of high school, she joined the Navy and that was it.”

After starting her service aboard the USS Yellowstone, Thompson was selected in 1996 to be one of the first women to serve aboard a U.S. Navy combat ship.

“She was proud of that,” Ross-Bacon said. “It was an honor, it was challenging as well, but we were up for the challenge.”


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U.S. Navy veteran Mikki Thompson is pictured during her time serving on board the USS Vela Gulf in the 1990s.

It wasn’t easy for the women on the crew at first, who were met with some skepticism from the male crewmembers, but Thompson made the adjustment easier through her hard work and bright personality.

“The guys just didn’t want us there on that ship, so we had to stick together,” Ross-Bacon shared. “She made things a lot easier. She was just one of the types of people who helped us bond.”

A boatswain mate, Thompson’s work ethic and determination earned her respect as she met each of the challenges placed before her.

“She helped us (women) prove our image, and the guys started to trust us and realize we were out there to do a job,” Spaulding explained.

Their time together at sea and the challenges they overcame led the women of the crew to form a special bond, one that would extend well past their time together at sea.

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U.S. Navy veteran Mikki Thompson is pictured during her time serving on board the USS Vela Gulf in the 1990s.

“We never forgot about each other, because of that sisterhood we had on that ship,” Ross-Bacon explained. “We went through some stuff together. We bonded, and that bond could never be broken.”

Thompson stayed in touch with those original crew mates even after her service on the ship ended in 1997, attending reunions and sharing messages and videos on social media.

It was there, over two decades after her time on the USS Vella Gulf, that Thompson shared her cancer diagnosis with her former shipmates.


A different kind of battle

“I was heartbroken,” shared Rene’ Sweat, who served with Thompson. “It always seems like the people who have the most life have their lives cut short.”

After learning Thompson was too ill to make it to the Vella Gulf’s decommissioning in August, a group of her shipmates made plans to visit her in Bemidji within the next few months.

“We knew that we needed to get out and see her,” Ruhl explained. “We wanted to let her know how much she really meant to us, especially on those hard days at sea.”

During their November visit, it was clear Thompson only had a short time left. So, even as they enjoyed their visit with a well-loved friend, Sweat, Ruhl and Ross-Bacon, along with a fourth crew member, were faced with a sad truth.

“We shared memories and laughed, it was really nice,” Ruhl shared, “but when I walked out the door, I knew that it would probably be the last time I would see her…I’m still trying to come to grips with it.”

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Pictured from left: U.S. Navy veterans Kelly Soles, Dionne Ross-Bacon, Diane Ruhl and Rene' Sweat visit their friend Mikki Thompson, in front, before her move into hospice care in November in Bemidji.

After that visit, they encouraged other shipmates who were planning to visit to make the trip as soon as possible, leading to a second group coming to Bemidji in early January.

By this point, Thompson was set to enter hospice care and her energy was low. Spaulding recalled sitting next to her and trying to provide some comfort.

“I was just lying there next to her, rubbing her back and humming 'Anchors Aweigh' to her, hoping that she would have memories of when we were in the Navy together,” Spaulding shared. “I think she liked it, I could feel her relax.”

They ended their visit on Monday, Jan. 2, and the next morning, just as their plane was about to take off, Spaulding received the news that Thompson had passed away.

“Her mother texted me saying they’d taken her body away,” Spaulding said. “I can’t believe the timing of it.”

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U.S. Navy veteran Mikki Thompson, of Bemidji, battled terminal cancer for over a year before dying at age 46 on Jan. 3, 2023.

For Spaulding and the others, it felt as though Thompson had held on just long enough to see her friends one last time.

“She waited for all of us to get there. She held on, I really believe that,” Spaulding said. “I feel so honored that she waited for us.”

Throughout her whole battle with cancer, the connections and friendships Thompson made in the Navy gave her strength and comfort.

“She was a sailor, through and through,” Ross-Bacon explained. “And if she was your friend, she was your friend to the end.”

For those women who spent such formative years together with Thompson on the Vella Gulf, each of them shared their gratitude for the time they spent with such a strong, incredible woman, with a bright smile.

“She was just a joy to be around,” Sweat left off. “I’m not going to be sad she’s no longer in pain. I’m going to be happy that I got to walk a leg of my life’s journey with her — that’s what I’m going to hold onto.”

Nicole Ronchetti is a reporter at the Bemidji Pioneer, focusing on local government and community health.
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