Couple's Dual Army Careers Prove Eventful
January 22, 2014
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- 1st Lt. Kathryn Munera's Army journey has been one of surprises, opportunities and challenges.
And it's those surprises that have kept this Black Hawk helicopter pilot at the top of her game.
Between her commissioning, pilot training, platoon leader experience and a combat deployment, Munera has managed to also get married -- to a fellow Army pilot, no less -- and become a mom.
And she did all that in about three years.
"I really believe everything happens for a reason," Munera said during an interview at her parents' Huntsville home while on holiday leave. "It's been busy. It's been a lot to think about. But it's all been good for us."
Of course, Munera and her husband, Capt. Juan Munera, have had a lot of support in the whirlwind of their early Army careers. Munera, who graduated from Enterprise High School where she was a leader in the JROTC program, is the daughter of Michele and Erich Erker, who both flew helicopters for the Army, and worked together to raise their two daughters through multiple moves, overseas assignments and deployments. Michele Erker, who eventually left the active Army to finish out her military career as a reservist, now works for the Fixed Wing Project Office of the Program Executive Office for Aviation; and Erich Erker, who retired from the Army after 25 years of service, is a defense contractor for Tyonek Services.
"My mom was a Cobra and Huey pilot and my dad could fly everything -- Cobra, Kiowa, Black Hawk, Huey," Munera said.
The Erker couple, who were featured in an April 2013 Redstone Rocket story, took care of their grandson Matteo, now a 23-month-old, when the young Munera couple deployed for nine months to Afghanistan in 2013. Matteo's paternal grandparents have also helped to support the couple's military careers.
"If we didn't have a family care plan, they wouldn't have deployed me," Munera said. "I couldn't walk away from what I really wanted to do with my Army career. I always wanted to fly Army helicopters and the deployment was one of those things that comes with the job I signed up for."
The Munera couple met while attending North Georgia College. Munera joined the Army Reserves after graduating from high school in 2005, and went through basic and advanced training before joining North Georgia's ROTC program for summer training in 2006 and then entering college that fall.
"The Army was an ongoing conversation during high school," Munera said. "I was 17 when I joined and I signed up for the coolest job I could find that would get me to Airborne School. I ended up being a parachute rigger as a reservist. I packed parachutes for the Rangers training at Camp Frank D. Merrill near school."
Munera met her future husband during her training that first summer with North Georgia ROTC. At first, they were only friends, but then they started dating in October 2006. Both aspired to be aviation officers, working together and challenging each other to be their best. They signed their cadet contracts in the spring of 2008 and both attended the Leader Development Assessment Course at Fort Lewis, Wash., in July 2008.
"Between their junior and senior years of college, ROTC cadets are assessed on how well they know military duties. We were tested on tactics, teamwork, land navigation, leadership and physical fitness," Munera said.
That fall, Munera's future course was set in ways she hadn't expected.
"Juan asked me to marry him. He asked me the same week we found out we were branching to aviation," Munera said. "It was a very eventful week."
On their engagement day, Munera was working on an outline for a class paper when a friend convinced Munera to come help with something outside their dorm room.
"When I walked outside, there was Juan and eight of his friends. They had made a saber arch, and there were tiki torches. Juan was in his dress blue uniform and then he was on his knee proposing," Munera recalled.
"I had no idea that was going to happen. But there was no way I was going to say no. I knew what I had."
Both had chosen the Aviation Branch as their top choice for commissioning. Munera also chose military intelligence and engineering as her other top choices. Juan Munera chose engineering and infantry as his other choices.
"Commissioning comes with a six-year obligation. But we were both willing to add an extra three years to that if they would assign us to aviation."
During the branch ceremony, the two cadets were anxious about their branch assignment. Nine of the senior cadets wanted aviation and there were only eight aviation slots available.
"They pulled both of us up on the stage. They played around with Juan. They uncovered my name first on the aviation list, but then they teased Juan and took their time. Then, they finally uncovered his name, too. We were both on cloud nine," Munera recalled.
Both graduated and commissioned, and then they married, all in August 2009. But with both having to wait until May 2010 to start flight school at Fort Rucker, the couple had to live separately for a while.
"Juan was chosen to be a cadet recruiter at North Georgia until it was time to go to Fort Rucker. I came home and worked at Old Navy," Munera said.
They then both attended the Basic Officer Leadership Course, she at Fort Jackson, S.C., and he at Fort Sill, Okla. Though the separation was disappointing, the two were again together as they went through pilot training and the other aviation training courses at Fort Rucker.
"We ended up in the middle of the class. I wanted to be a Chinook helicopter pilot because I really like the cargo mission. I thought I could get more flight time with a Chinook and the missions would be cooler," Munera said.
"The class ahead of us had a lot of Apaches and Kiowas, but barely any Black Hawk assignments. Our plan was for Juan to ask for Black Hawk and I would ask for Chinook. But then our class got mostly Black Hawk slots. So, that's what we both asked for and that's what we got."
The two trained on the L model Black Hawks. They are now transitioning to the M model Black Hawks.
During their Black Hawk training, Munera got the biggest surprise of all.
"I found out I was pregnant," she said. "We told our parents, but no else besides Juan and I knew."
The two graduated from flight school in June 2011 and were assigned to the 3rd Infantry Division at Hunter Army Airfield in Savannah, Ga., with Munera assigned to a lead a maintenance platoon of an air assault company with the 43rd Assault Helicopter Battalion, 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade, and her husband to lead a VIP platoon in the 23rd General Support Aviation Battalion, 3rd Combat Aviation Brigade.
"Here I was assigned, newly assigned to an aviation unit as a person who can't fly," Munera said. "I was going in saying 'Hi, I'm your new lieutenant and I'm pregnant.'"
Munera took the initiative and, before reporting for duty, emailed the company commander, explaining the situation. That turned out to be a good move, as the commander worked ahead of time to shift Munera from leading a maintenance platoon to a less physically demanding position leading a shops platoon that works on helicopter electronics and air frames.
"I walked into the company and kept my mouth shut for the first few weeks. I was welcomed by being told there was one bathroom and that I might want to bring an air freshener with me," Munera said, laughing. "I knew to keep my mouth shut and watch to see how things were done, then after a few weeks I could start changing things."
But the assignment to Hunter Army Airfield also meant the Munera couple would deploy to Afghanistan in about a year. The couple stayed busy in their respective assignments, training and preparing with their companies for deployment.
Since she wasn't flying, Munera was concerned that she would lose some of her training. To combat memory loss and to keep herself prepared, Munera would spend off time sitting in the helicopter cockpit, going over in her mind all of her training.
"We are tested regularly on all of our knowledge. We are constantly studying as aviators because we are expected to know certain things and if we don't, we don't fly. If you aren't flying, it's hard to be ready for those tests," she said. "I did what I needed to so that I wouldn't forget everything I had learned. I made an effort and that showed that I cared, that I wanted to do this."
The couple was also using the time to figure out how to care for their newborn son while they were deployed. Matteo was born on Feb. 5, 2012, about 10 months before the deployment.
"I worked up until I popped. I was out for 90 days and then I went back to work. A week later, I was flying," Munera said.
"I supported the deployment. There was no way I wasn't going to Afghanistan with my unit. That's what I trained for. That's what I committed myself to doing," Munera said.
"At the same time, it was hard to even think about leaving Matteo. It was hard thinking about how he would be cared for while we were gone. My mom and dad made it all possible. They were the perfect ones to care for Matteo because they had raised a military family, they had access to a military base and to a military hospital, they understood Tricare, and they had jobs that would let them be flexible."
During the deployment, Munera was assigned as a battle captain to a combat assault team in Regional Command South while her husband served as the executive officer in a maintenance company and then as a VIP platoon leader in a different location in RC South. Between the two, Munera got the most combat aviation hours.
"I was involved in a lot of air assaults, and I saw things a lot of people don't ever want to see," she said.
Now, back in the states and returned to a family routine, the Munera couple and their son are settled back in Savannah. Both are awaiting assignment to the captain's career course, and are fulfilling their Army duties as officers.
"Wherever we end up, we will be following the one of us who has the better opportunities," Munera said. "We hope that we are showing Matteo that you never quit on your dream and you always do things for the family honor. And, for me, it's been a matter of family tradition that goes back to my grandfather."
Munera said she and her husband are mirror images of her own parents. Munera's father immigrated from Austria and had to work through high school before he joined the Army. Juan Munera immigrated from Colombia, and spent his teenage years playing sports, participating in JROTC and holding down a job. Munera, like her mother, had a steady family life growing up, with several military moves and the opportunity to excel in ROTC in high school. The Munera couple are pursuing their Army service careers together, just like Munera's parents.
"We know we can do this. We were meant to do this," Munera said. "We are doing this for our future and for the future of our son."