Small Town Girl in Afghanistan

September 8, 2011

by Martha Martin

Kathy holding her weapon

A Washougal home town girl, Katherine Williams, or Kathy to her friends and family,  wanted an education and to see the world.  A red haired, blue-eyed beauty, she has a talent for the clarinet.  But her real talent is a voice that can sing anything from slow ballads and blues, to raucous rock-n-roll.  She graduated from Washougal High School in 2002, and her love of music, and desire for travel, led her to join the Army, becoming an army musician.

She survived boot camp, and learned that getting up early, keeping her red hair up and off her collar, and constantly keeping in shape was a challenge.  She learned to use weapons, and had to stand guard for hours.  She was excited when her first over seas deployment was to Korea, and being a single woman with lots of energy, she enjoyed every moment, soaking up the local culture.

When she returned to the states she considered another stint, signing up for another wave of military life.  The Army moved her around, several times before she landed in Texas.  Here she met her future husband, Joe.   Joe is also a musician who plays several wind instruments, the guitar, and sings like silk.  Kathy and Joe fell in love, and after some time, were married.  Their ceremony was offbeat and simple.  They both wore their army fatigues, and mugged for the cameras of their army friends.  Kathy was pregnant with their first son.

Life seemed pretty stable, with the two of them being stationed in Texas just outside San Antonio.  They bought a house, lived in it awhile, then bought another, and rented out the first.  Their son was born, the first great-grandchild in her  family.  And then another pregnancy, one that was not so planned, but still a blessing.  One more move, this time being stationed in northern New York.

Then, the news came that both would be deployed to Afghanistan for one year.  A married couple with two children, both going overseas, and they must leave their children behind.  Joe’s parents offered to keep both boys while he and Kathy are away.  Parents and children are now separated, as the two fly many hours, and several stops to reach the base in a desert country that “is sandy and dirty and bleak” as described by Kathy.  They count their blessings when they are given a small cubicle of a room to share, rather than live apart.

Before leaving, the family had set up a Skype account.  Each day, the two hike to the main building that houses on-base computers, and visit with their children over the internet.  The boys clown for the camera, or scoot off to play with their toys, or chase each other.  The two parents watch and smile, trying to keep a connection with their children over the many miles of separation.

In January of this year, Kathy learned that her mother was ill with terminal cancer, and had just a few months.  The army granted both Kathy and Joe 20 days leave to say good-bye to her mother.  They made the long trek back to the states, but were not able to see their children who are on the East coast, while Kathy’s mother was in Washington State.  There was not enough time or finances to do both.  This became the most difficult thing she has ever had to do.  Her mother did not appear very ill, but Kathy saw the medical report.  The cancer was throughout her body, and there were so many tumors in her brain, the doctors lost count.  Kathy and her mother spent time talking, mending fences, and just being together.

Kathy was also able to visit with her grandfather, as well as her Aunt and a close cousin, all who live within driving distance.  The visit is bitter sweet for her, and she talks about hoping it will snow so much that their plane flight will be cancelled.  But it is not.  In early spring, while Kathy is far away in Afghanistan, she is notified that her mother has passed away.

During her deployment, in Afghanistan, Kathy agreed to an interview and to answer some questions about her experience.   Before she could do this interview, she had Army Public Affairs review the questions and her responses.

What made you decide to go into the Army right out of high school?
“ My grandparents were adamant that I join a branch of the military because the military provides a steady paycheck, rent or a place to stay, money for food or a meal card, money for college etc, etc.  I’m glad that I listened! Also, a very good friend of mine joined as a saxophone player.  She inspired me to join as a bandsman.  I did an audition on the clarinet for the Marine Corps, but was scared by their intense training films, so went and spoke to an Army recruiter.  I later performed an audition for the Army and was accepted and decided that it was the right fit for me.”

What have been the most difficult experiences for you and why?
“My first duty station was Korea and was really the first time I had been away from home for such a long period of time. I would say that was the first, most difficult experience. Constantly being away from family is always tough and I think it affected my relationships in both positive and negative ways.  I would say the most difficult experience so far has been this deployment.  I found out that my mom had cancer early on in the deployment, around Christmas time, and then lost her to the disease a few months later.  I have two small children, ages 2 and 3, and being separated from them has also been extremely difficult.  It takes a lot of personal strength and a strong support system to be able to leave your children for a year.”

How did you and Joe (your husband) meet?
” We were both stationed together at Fort Rucker in Alabama.  We noticed one another but had other things going on at the time. We became really good friends in San Antonio, Texas, and fell in love.”

What kinds of music are you and Joe entertaining the troops with? How often do you perform? What is your “stage” like?
“We are in the “Rock” band, but we perform all types of music; R&B, rock, jazz, pop, and Latin. How often we perform varies on the time of year and how often we are requested. Over here, we have performed about 60 missions. Our “stage” also varied greatly.  Sometimes it was gravel, sometimes a real wood stage, but I would say for the most part people took care of us and ensured that we had level ground to perform on.”

What are your plans when you return to the states?
“Simply to be reunited with my kids and return to a normal everyday schedule. We will have to get a house, get all of our things out of storage (which includes our vehicles) and get the kids scheduled for daycare once again, so it will be a big adjustment for all.”

What do you miss the most about being away?
“EVERYTHING! Seriously! Driving, ordering delivery (food), being able to go to the grocery store, cooking, free time, traveling … I could really go on forever! Not to say that Afghanistan is really awful, but as Dorothy said in the Wizard of Oz “there’s no place like home.”

How is it for you to be away from your children? What was your brief visit like for you?
“I touched on this a little already, but it’s one of the hardest things I’ve ever had to do in my life. What’s tough is wondering how all of this is affecting them. They are still little, so they don’t really understand why we’ve been gone for so long, but thank God for Skype! Things would have been much more difficult if we wouldn’t have had that service.”

“In the middle of our tour over here, we got a chance to go home on R&R (rest and recuperation leave). We were so excited to see the kids, but it was bitter sweet. When we first got home all was good, but when we had to leave, it damn near tore our hearts out. Our oldest was screaming for us to stay, and bawling his little eyes out as we drove away. I think the only consolation was that we didn’t have much time left in our deployment and we knew that we would be heading home for good.”

What are some things that you would like to share with those who are back home?
“I would like to thank the supporters of troops. It may not always seem like we’re appreciative, but I promise, WE ARE! It means the world when we receive a care package or simple message (especially a face-to-face “thank you”) from friends, family or even those we have never met.”

One more question.  Is there anything else you would like to say that feels important?
“My choice to join the Army has been one of the best decisions I’ve ever made. It has forced me to grow, change, think differently and it has definitely given me opportunities I never would have experienced otherwise. I have gained a family and friends who will last a lifetime.”