Leaving her son was the most difficult part
Amanda and Zechariah Kerr today
U.S. Army Staff Sgt. Amanda Kerr's Message to America: "In the sense of the military, I would have to say that girls can do just as good as guys."
Sitting in her parents' living room one cold November day in 1999, U.S. Army Specialist Amanda Kerr wept as she cradled her 6-month-old son, Zechariah, feeding him for the last time before leaving for Kuwait, more than 6,000 miles away from her Tamaqua home.
Kerr, who had always dreamed of joining the military, had enlisted four years earlier, on Dec. 8, 1995, her grandfather's birthday, and three weeks after her 17th birthday. Sworn into duty on Dec. 9, her mother's birthday "She was very, very supportive because that's what she had wanted to do, but she didn't," Kerr said she eagerly looked forward to her Army career. She had sailed through basic training, adjusted well to the rigid structure and demands of military life.
But while Kerr had soldiered on through base transfers and tough training, having to leave her baby for more than four months, even though he was in the good care of her parents, broke her.
"Actually, I got quite hysterical and cried an awful lot. I knew it was peacekeeping, I figured I'd be safe, it wasn't like I had a fear of dying. But I knew I would miss so much in that time," she said. They had been apart before, but only for two or three weeks at a time.
"My son was 6 months old when I left (for Kuwait), and I missed him dearly," she said. "He got his first tooth the day I left, and started walking while I was gone."
Zechariah's dad was in the Marine Corps.
"It was just too rough with both of us being in (the military)," she said.
When her tour of duty was up in July 2000, Kerr chose to not re-enlist. She remained on "inactive ready reserve," meaning she could be called up at any time.
But although she was home, military matters had a prominent place in her life. She recalls when the Army changed its slogan from "Be All That You Can Be" to "An Army of One." Kerr, imbued with the belief in teamwork, was incensed with the new slogan.
"It kind of agitated me after a couple weeks, and I had to go in and question it. They always taught us to be a team," she said.
Kerr walked into a recruiter's office to discuss the matter.
"They said they wanted soldiers to be unique and know they still could be individuals while being part of the team. And, recruiters being recruiters, they said 'when did you get out?'," she recalls.
On July 18, 2001, a year to the day after her tour ended and she mustered out, Kerr joined the active Army Reserves.
"I missed the military, and it was the one-weekend-a month-and-two-weeks-a-year deal," she said. Better yet, "I was close to home because I was stationed in Schuylkill Haven."
But her first drill with the Reserves was scheduled for Sept. 13, 2001 two days after the infamous terrorist attacks on New York and Washington. Kerr's heart sank as she realized she might be forced to leave her son again.
But that didn't happen.
"We were on standby," she said. "We never went anywhere."
In early 2003, she was transferred to a unit near Philadelphia, poised to go to Iraq. But gall bladder surgery stopped that deployment short.
But on her birthday in November, 2004, she found out her unit would be deployed. On Feb. 16, 2005, "My Mom, my Dad and Zeke came down and when I went to get on the bus (to get to the plane to take her to Iraq), he wouldn't let go of me. They had to pry him off me. That's probably the first time anyone saw me cry. I have that persona that I'm a tough girl. But that was it; I put my head down and cried pretty much until they made me get off the bus again. That broke my heart. I thought, I can't do this, I don't want to go."
But she didn't have that option, and soon found herself in Iraq for a seven-month stint.
"It kind of reminded me of the movie Groundhog Day it was very repetitive," she said. "We lived in a hangar, and my office was about 50 feet outside the hangar."
Every morning, Kerr got in her Humvee and drove to the other side of the post to get vehicle parts, then drove back to her office, unload the parts, log them into a computer and mark them and then distribute them for the mechanics to use.
"Pretty much, I was in my office all day long," she said. "I was in Kirkuk, so it was pretty peaceful."
Recent figures place at 4,359 the number of American soldiers killed in Iraq.
Kerr said she's "never had a fear of dying." When the alert siren sounded in Kirkuk, it "sounded like the one that goes off every night for curfew here in Tamaqua," she said. "So it was kind of easy to block that out after all these years."
Her roommate was in a convoy that was hit by an IED, an Improvised Explosive Device a homemade bomb.
"I think I was always more concerned about those guys they were always going off post," she said. That time, fortunately, "all our people came back."
Kerr only went out on a convoy once.
"My commander had said I was a girl, and a single mother, and that I needed to stay on post. But the time came when Kerr was the only person available to drive the five-ton vehicle.
"I kind of fought with the guy. I said I can go, I can do it, it's no big deal," she recalls. "I actually drove the Sunni triangle."
The area, mostly populated by Sunni Muslims, has its corners at Baghdad on the east, Ramadi on the west and Tikrit on the north.
"It was a very peaceful trip," she said.
One time, in a call home, Zechariah asked "if I had any grenades. I said no, buddy, we don't get to carry grenades."
"From what I see on TV, I think you should have grenades," he replied.
"Oh yeah? Well, how many should Mommy have," she asked him.
"At least six, but I think you should have 12. Do you get to drive those big tank things?" he said.
"No, I said, because I'm a girl."
"Well, that's not right either," Zechariah said. "I think you should have your own tank, too."
But her tour in Iraq was not without its unsettling moments. Kerr had a scare when base doctors thought she had breast cancer. Because there were no facilities equipped to do mammograms or ultrasounds. They said she could wait until she went home, but that would not have been until February.
The thought of Kerr being stuck in Iraq with a possibly cancerous tumor prompted her mother, Ilona Kerr, to petition local legislators to bring her daughter home. Kerr arrived home on Sept. 20, 2005.
"It wasn't that I wanted to come home," she said. "It was that I wanted to know what was going on with me. Being in a war zone and not knowing whether I was sick, letting something like breast cancer go for six or seven months wasn't a good idea."
She was flown to Germany for testing for a month, then back to Fort Dix for another four months.
Kerr, now 30 years old and a staff sergeant, enlisted again on Memorial Day.
She's a unit administrator, doing payroll, and works in the motor pool.
With 14 years in the service, what are her plans for the future?
"I'll stay in as long as I possibly can," she said with a smile.