Lt. Col. Karen Neely prepares for Iraq.
While most were busy this week shooting off fireworks and celebrating independence from British rule, Lt. Col. Karen Neely was spending a few last minutes with her friends and family.
The Murfreesboro native ships out to Iraq next week with the rest of her U.S. Army Reserve unit. In her last week at home, she spent quality time with her three children and her father and mother before spending the next year in a war zone.
“My family, my friends, I have the best family and friends in the world. They’ve been praying for me,” Neely said. “Sending me cards and letters. I feel so supported. I know I’m going to be far away. I can’t explain how that makes a difference.”
Slight of frame with a runner’s build, Neely, 41, has an intensity in her eyes and smile that suggest she’s not the type to back down from adversity.
She began her military career in MTSU’s Reserve Officer Training Corps (ROTC).
It was exciting and challenging, she explained. And a good challenge is exactly what Neely enjoys most in life.
Her passions in life, cross-country running, military service and teaching math to high school students, attest to her dedication and love of overcoming a challenge.
“I love a challenge. You can look at my life and see that,” she said.
It was the challenge and discipline of the military, plus the workout and scholarship, that drew her to ROTC and eventually military service.
While in ROTC, she went to a two-week basic training summer camp for students at Ft. Knox. Neely’s experience at the camp hooked her on the Army and led her to serve the last 22 years.
Since graduating from MTSU, she has taught math at Riverdale, to home-schooled students and, more recently, at Middle Tennessee Christian School (MTSC).
She loves teaching math, because of the sense of accomplishment she gets from teaching a child something difficult, something challenging.
“I love being able to teach it and for them to get it. It’s just, when you see that light bulb go off and they say, ‘You helped me understand this,’” she explained, smiling widely at memories of past students.
Neely has also coached cross-country at MTCS for the past five years.
“I love to run, and it’s fun sharing it with the kids,” she said, explaining MTCS boys’ cross-country team made it to state last year for the first time in school history.
But, this wasn’t the first time Neely’s done something for the first time. She was the first female battalion commander for MTSU’s ROTC and her U.S. Army Reserve unit is a first.
Neely is stationed with the 316th Expeditionary Sustainment Command, which is the logistics headquarters for Iraq. This unit ensures all the material needs of soldiers are met, including food, ammunition and other equipment.
“I’m in charge of a section called Human Resource Operations,” Neely said.
Her section organizes all the military mail in Iraq, finance, reporting and tracking causalities, and tracking troop movements around, to and from the country, she explained.
“We’re at headquarters level, so the companies that are several levels down are actually doing it,” she said. “We’re just creating a policy for them, overseeing them, making sure they have what they need, moving them around the battle space as needed.”
The odd part of her job in Iraq is that she and everyone else in the unit are reservists.
“This is the first time in Army history that an Army Reserve unit has performed this function,” Neely said. “All the logistics functions have been done historically by active duty units.”
Her unit was created in September 2006 for the express purpose of performing this duty. There are more than 450 soldiers from 44 states and four countries represented, she said.
“We were just thrown together to go to war and perform this mission. Of course, it’s exciting because this has never been performed by a reserve unit,” she said.
However, the excitement of the impending mission is weighed against the emotion of leaving her family and friends.
“Just out of the blue you get this feeling,” she explained. “You’re either intensely fired up or intensely sad. Not really anything that tangible, just emotion. I think it’s just the realization of what’s coming.”
It’s the support of her friends, family, other soldiers and the community in general that will get her through her mission, she said.
“I just feel so supported. It makes all the difference in the world,” she said.
Her faith also helps her deal with her up coming challenge.
“Having lived a lot of life and being blessed. God’s blessed me so that if the worst thing happens, it’s OK,” Neely said. “I have no regrets. I know my family will be taken care of. I’m at peace with the whole thing. And that helps.”