MTSU alumna moves up in army rank
By Sarah Lavery
When Karen Johnston Neely woke up a few mornings ago, she started to cry.
Not because she's on the verge of leaving for Iraq or because she was scared of leaving her three children behind.
She was crying because her 15-year-old daughter Julie Anne had changed the screen saver on her computer. The words "Mom, I'm so proud of you. I'm proud of you for defending our country. I'm proud of everything you've done for us," scrolled across the screen.
To Neely, the fact that her family supports her means more than any promotion ever could.
An MTSU alumna, Neely has continually broken ground for women in the military. She was named the first female ROTC cadet commander in 1985 and was recently promoted to lieutenant colonel - an extremely prestigious rank for any solider, man or woman.
Neely is tough and capable, determined and thick-skinned. Every time she's doubted, she relishes the challenge.
"As a female, you're constantly wondering, 'what [is the other male soldiers'] take on me?' You can see it in their eyes," Neely says. "They'll talk to everyone and come to you, and sometimes they treat you differently. I guess it's human nature but I try to not let that bother me. I try to let them know I'm just like any other [soldier]. And I'll prove I can do the job."
When Neely was at MTSU studying math and biology, she noticed a classmate wandering into her calculus class in an army uniform. Always a fitness fanatic, Neely asked him what the workouts were like.
For most, his answer probably wouldn't sound very appealing: running for miles, countless pushups, stretching your physical, mental and emotional capabilities to their limit.
But it was just what Neely wanted.
She joined in the ROTC's workouts for nearly a year, still more interested in the severity of their strength training than becoming a soldier. Once she attended a basic training in Fort Knox, though, she graduated as top cadet.
Some might argue that the military is no place for a woman. Some might say Neely would have been better off if she'd been satisfied with her degree in math and biology or her master's degree in education. Maybe she should have just stuck to the classroom.
Despite this, Neely - and her three kids - couldn't be prouder of the path she's chosen.
"Just like when we have our first female president," Neely says, "there will be obstacles. I'm sure there will be some people that think women aren't up to par. I had a lot of people that tested me, and I'm sure it was a tougher job at first than it would have been for a man."
With Neely calling the shots, some men thought they could get away with more. Even in the tough-edged, hard-as-nails world of the military, some soldiers thought her gender meant they could goof off.
They didn't know who they were dealing with.
"One time, we were preparing a brief to present to the professor of military science," Neely remembers, "and a lot of the guys just wouldn't show up for our weekly meetings. They were totally disrespectful. They made light of my position, even in front of the other cadets. But I pulled them aside. I set them straight."
While Neely prepares for her deployment to Iraq, the country's opinion of the war is becoming more and more pessimistic. September 11 might have caused a short-lived sweep of patriotism across the nation, but the images being presented of the war are increasingly negative. Some people think we're in over our heads, the original goal has been lost.
On the verge of deployment, Neely stays focused on her job.
"I try to not pay attention to the politics," she says. "I have a more microview of the war. I wonder to myself, 'how can I help the Iraqis?' When you watch the news, it's negative, it's like we're not successful. But the stories I hear from my friends who are coming back say something different. We are successful, even if it's not in big ways yet. Those seeds that are planted, I believe-I'm confident-are going to create a long-term change. You can't go in there and expect democracy to grow overnight."
Female presence in the military is growing - it as nearly doubled in the last 20 years - but the idea of women in combat is still debated.
Neely understands the issues that could arise with women and men working together in dangerous missions. Men may still feel an overwhelming need to be the protectors, but she says the nature of the battlefield is changing.
"Women are in combat," she says. "In the battlefield today, there's no such thing as the front line, no such thing as a safe rear area. Dealing with terrorist insurgents, they're so small, the only way they can fight is in little hideouts. They're smart. There is no safe place anymore going to Iraq."
It's clearly a dangerous job, but Neely is sure that without her experience in the army, she wouldn't be the woman she is today. It's given her courage and challenged her in every way possible.
"Whether we're on a 10 mile road march with a 50-pound rucksack on our backs, or exercising for 48 hours with no sleep," she says, "you're emotionally and physically drained. But it has been the part of my life that has always strengthened me."
Neely's confident in her ability to handle the pressure in Iraq - even in such a powerful position as lieutenant colonel - but she still feels a twinge of anxiety at the thought of leaving her family.
Her 10-year-old son, Jonathan, will take it the hardest.
"I'm so excited, so proud, but when you think about what you're leaving," she pauses and thinks of her three children, the most important part of her life. "It's hard. They break down at times."
When she returns from her 14 to 18 month tour of Iraq, she wants to take part in a triathlon. She wants to continue teaching. But most of all, she doesn't want to miss another moment of her children growing up.
"It is tough, and they're scared," she says. "But they're so proud of me. And so am I."
© Sarah Lavery