Veterans Day Q&A: Kathy Kuras

The YMCA has a long history of providing support for military personnel and their families dating back to the Civil War. Today, there are 17 Armed Services YMCAs across the U.S. As we approach Veterans Day, November 11, YMCA of Austin President & CEO Kathy Kuras reflects on her service in the U.S. Marine Corps Reserves, deployment in Operation Desert Storm and the Y’s commitment to serving all communities.

What motivated you to enlist?

I was in college at Loyola University in New Orleans, and I had friends on an intramural flag football team who were in the service. And one of them was in the Marine Corps reserves, and the other was in the National Guard. I was very interested in their experiences and was also searching to do something bigger than myself, wanting to give back.

My family also has a pretty rich military history. My grandfather on my mother’s side was a hospital administrator for the military. And my mother grew up all over the world because he moved around. She went to kindergarten in Japan, and she went to college in Heidelberg, Germany. I had always heard about her life and his story and how successful he was. Her stepmother was also in the military, and at one point, she was the dietician to Eisenhower. My stepfather was also a veteran. He was an officer in the Army during Vietnam, and he was awarded the Bronze Star. So, I think, growing up with all that, and then having this experience in college, I started wanting to do something bigger than myself.

Why the Marines?

The reason I selected the Marines is because, frankly, at the time, I thought of it as the hardest, most challenging branch of the military. And I wanted to prove that I could do it. 

What was your experience like?

I completed basic training at Parris Island, South Carolina. And then I went to what’s called MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) School. At Parris Island, I graduated as the honor graduate at the top of the group, which I’m very proud of. I went to MOS School at Camp Lejeune, and I graduated first out of the MOS school class, too. So, I obviously became very committed to the Corps,  because I was putting a lot of effort into it.

I remember my stepfather wrote me a card saying how proud he was. He also said he was happy I wouldn’t have the kind of experience he had in Vietnam. At that time tensions had been rising in the Middle East, and, ironically, a few weeks later I ended up getting called up for Operation Desert Storm.

What was it like being a female in a mostly male environment?

I was in what’s called grunt unit, which, in the Marines, means you go to the front lines. And I was the only female in my unit. At that time, as we were deploying, women were pulled out of those units and assigned to a a different job that wasn’t heading to the front lines. So I got assigned to what was basically the headquarters of Camp LeJeune on the active duty side, during the time when the rest of my unit went overseas.

But it ended up being a great experience in the sense that I ended up getting a job that was about trying to figure out how we were moving folks around and filling vacant roles when reserve troops were getting called up. So, myself and another Marine, we actually figured out a whole system to put into place for our entire division. I got a certificate of commendation from the commanding general for that, so I had very meaningful work during the time.

Did you ever feel instances of discrimination or sexism?

I don’t know if I was just a little blind to some things, but I never really experienced anything that I saw as outward discrimination. I know there’s people that have experienced that, and I’ve heard their stories, but I just never really experienced it. Sure, at that point, women couldn’t go to the front lines, but I accepted that as sort of the way things were as more women were serving in the military. It was part a progression. Oftentimes, big changes take steps. Women had been involved with the military for many years. But being able to actually serve in certain roles, and being able to become officers, being able to go to the front lines, all those things took time.

Did you feel like you had to work twice as hard to prove yourself? What was your general mindset, and what were your takeaways?

My stepfather was a very hard worker. And for as long as I’ve known him, he’s always had two or three jobs. Even now, he’s retired from his main job, but he’s working another job. So, I learned my work ethic from him. Maybe part of it is internally wired, but I also think a lot of it came from him. There was just a pride, if you’re going to do something, you’re going to do it really well. And it wasn’t about trying to be first. It was about doing the best that I can. The fact that I got these accolades, that was just an outcome. I wasn’t necessarily going for that. Now, don’t get me wrong, it was great to receive them, but that wasn’t the goal.

What were the biggest challenges you faced during your service?

Well, I think certainly, going through basic training in the Marine Corps is really, really challenging. I mean, you are testing both your physical and mental capacity to handle something that’s intentionally being done to try to break you down.

There are many moments throughout all of that - whether it’s marching for what seems like forever with packs on your back, standing on the parade ground and having to be completely still when a sand fly is on your face, going through a gas chamber and having to take off your gas mask. But all of that gives you an understanding of what it takes to handle adversity.

What are some of the values or lessons from the Marines that have stayed with you?

One thing I love about the Marine Corps that everyone has to prove their value. The value you add and your merit is worth more than, frankly, where you came from or even how long you’ve been in the service. What are you doing today that’s adding value, that’s making a difference? And, being held to a very high standard.

The second thing is, you also learn that, as much as you’re pushing yourself, that you have an entire team around you. There’s that saying, “Never leave a soldier behind.” So yes, you’re pushing yourself hard, but you’re also constantly thinking, “What’s going on with our team here?” Our unit, our squad, whatever it is, we have to help make sure everyone is moving forward together.

The other lesson comes from the Marines’ motto, Semper Fi (semper fidelis), which means always being faithful to your fellow Marines, always faithful to your country and always faithful to the objectives, the goals, the mission. So, when you have a goal that you’re working to achieve, you don’t stop until you achieve it. Maybe you learn that you need to adjust the goal because you had incomplete information, but you don’t just stop. You keep going until the thing is done, no matter what effort it takes and no matter what you’ve got to accomplish it.

You worked for the Y prior to enlisting. Why did you decide to leave the service and come back to work for the Y?

That experience during Desert Storm gave me some time to really reflect: Do I really want this to be my full-time gig? Or do I want to have this be a part of my life? And I found myself having a stronger desire to do the work in the community with the kids. At that time, I had been working seasonally at the Oak Cliff YMCA in Dallas, which was a community where there’s a lot of impact, and it was very fulfilling work. Throughout Desert Storm, I kept thinking, “I wonder if I’ll be back in time this summer to work with the kids at the Y.” And that became a persistent question. I came to a realization that I loved being in the Marine Corps, but I wanted to stay in the reserves so that I could continue the work I was doing at the Y.

Do you see any similarities between the Y and the military?

I think the heart for service is similar. People may join the military because they want to serve their country. And many become team members in the Y because they want to serve their community. So, I think this heart for service is very similar, even though it’s a very different sort of service.

The Y has a long history of support for military personnel dating back to the Civil War. How does that make you feel as a veteran?

The way that I think about it is, the Y support is for people, making sure that our people who were leaving from our neighborhoods and communities were being taken care of as they went off to fight or defend or whatever it is that they were doing throughout various engagements. And, that their families had support back home.

When I worked at Y-USA, I did a video project in Kansas about a woman whose husband was deployed. This was near a military base at an Armed Forces YMCA that provided a lot of services for military families. She told the story that, after learning that her husband was killed in the line of duty overseas, the next call was from the Y. And the Y said, “We heard about what happened, we’re here for you a hundred percent.” It meant so much to her that the Y was there that quickly, and she talked about all this. I think the relationship goes back to the fact that we’re there for people. The Y serves people, first and foremost, in communities. And one of those communities is our military.

All opinions expressed here are those of their authors and/or contributors and not of their employer. Any questions or concerns regarding the content found here may be sent to info@austinymca.org

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