Posted at 11 a.m., Nov. 12, 2013

A mother’s duty:
A military career in medical treatment swooped Karen Gehrke out of her hometown. Now she hopes to use that experience to provide for her daughter.

Photo by Brooke A. Rogers

Medic, mother, student

One woman takes on the world

By Brooke A. Rogers
Managing Editor

Karen Gehrke has fought many different battles as an Army veteran and the single mother of an autistic child. Hailing from Seeley Lake, Mont., Gehrke volunteered for active duty when she was 18, as a way to escape her hometown. She chose to become a 68W or “combat medic” for the military because it gave her the opportunity to leave Seeley a month earlier than other career choices the Army offered.

Although she loved her work as a medic, Gehrke left the Army five years ago to raise her daughter, Mai. “I wasn’t going to miss all of my daughter’s firsts,” she said.

Mai has changed everything for Gehrke, who plans her days around her kindergartener’s schedule. Gerhke’s 5-year-old has high-functioning autism, and while it presents challenges when it comes to socializing and communication, it hasn’t inhibited her strong personality. “She’s so outgoing,” Gehrke said. “She loves to make people laugh.”

Mai is at the top of her class. “She’s smart as a button, almost too smart. She figures out so much on her own.” Gehrke said, proudly describing her daughter. “I wouldn’t have her any other way.”

When she’s not busy with her mothering duties, Gehrke is a full-time exercise science major at Laramie County Community College. She hopes to support her family by in sports conditioning when she leaves LCCC. Gehrke is familiar with much of what she is currently studying at LCCC because of her time as a medic in the Army.

From soldier to mother: still fighting

There, Gehrke’s battalion tended to soldiers who were injured during exercises, trained other soldiers in basic first aid for combat field conditions and cared for soldiers who became sick on the base. In August 2006, after spending six months in Hawaii, Gehrke was deployed to Kirkuk, Iraq, for a year. Gehrke’s duties included medical detail for the detainee facility, providing medical care for explosive ordnance disposal squads clearing the routes of improvised explosive devices (IED). Gerhke enjoyed helping soldiers heal after traumatic experiences.

Once, while on a road clearance mission, they found a record number of 18 IEDs. Gehrke’s squad found themselves in the uncomfortable position of fitting 12 soldiers into one vehicle after an IED damaged four of the six vehicles in their caravan. Because of the cramped space, Gehrke ended up lying across the lap of one soldier, her feet on the legs of another, with another soldier’s head on her stomach. “Everyone who was lying down was passed out,” Gehrke recalled, laughing. “It was a scary day that ended up being kind of hilarious.”

Gehrke’s experiences display the resilience of today’s soldiers. At one point, Gehrke was helping unload a vehicle on a route clearance mission when she heard the whistle of an incoming mortar round. “They say you’re safe if you hear the whistle,” Gehrke said, shaking her head, “which is the biggest load of s***.”

The door on the back of the vehicle was about 4 feet off the ground, so Gehrke and the soldiers with her had to pull themselves up into the vehicle to take cover. “I was the tallest in the group,” Gehrke said, laughing. “The other guys were about 5 foot 6 inches.”

Two rounds exploded 20 feet away, behind a line of vehicles. The impact didn’t injure any of the soldiers, but it took out the tires of several vehicles. “It just shocked us for a moment. We checked to make sure everyone was OK. Then we moved on,” Gehrke said.

Gehrke returned to Hawaii after her deployment ended, where she remained another 21 months. Gehrke departed from the Army when Mai was 11-months-old, returning to the Midwest to attend college and be closer to her mother, who helps raise Mai.

At LCCC, Gehrke is moving forward with what she wants fro life for herself and her daughter.

As a soldier, Gehrke protected the American dream. As a civilian, she’s chasing it—she’s just a little closer to home.

 

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