Not just for soldiers: How contractor lives Warrior Ethos
Michelle Klapper, Morale, Welfare and Recreations coordinator at Forward Operating Base Spin Boldak, Afghanistan, sits among items her facility offers to the servicemembers and civilians currently deployed here in support of Operation Enduring Freedom. Klapper has served continuously in both Iraq and Afghanistan since 2004, with the exception of a short break she had to take because of an injury from a mortar attack.

FORWARD OPERATING BASE SPIN BOLDAK, Afghanistan, Aug. 12, 2011 -- If she were in the military, Michelle Klapper would have, by now, probably earned her Purple Heart, Combat Action Badge and a host of other military awards for her contributions to Global War on Terrorism.

A Morale, Welfare and Recreation coordinator here at a sparse and barren military post just south of Kandahar, Klapper has served in both Iraq and Afghanistan since 2004, bringing a taste of home and comfort to U.S. and coalition servicemembers who might otherwise have been forgotten by citizens wearied of the wars that started more than a decade ago.

Klapper has never forgotten, she said. She's not forgotten the friends she made in both war-torn countries -- who were barely young enough to vote when she first met them, often battle-fatigued and missing home. She's not forgotten the friend she lost in Iraq. She can't forget the time the hospital next to her office was mortared and the impact hit so violently it sent her to that same hospital and put her out of commission for nearly three months.

Just like those she served, however, the Virginia Beach, Va., native initially refused a trip home for treatment -- and much like many of the wounded warriors of Operations Iraqi and Enduring Freedom, Klapper eventually "hopped back on the horse," and once again left behind her family to serve.

"My sister is married to someone in the Navy and I was an Army wife, so I understand," said Klapper. "I've always done a lot of [Family Readiness Group] events with bake sales, fund raisers and raffles just to put a smile on someone's face, so I am used to it."

In war zones, Klapper is doing the same. Whether it's offering a young Soldier a package of homemade cookies or simply listening to a more seasoned Soldier speak of home, Klapper said part of her duties is to give back to Soldiers -- to those, in her mind, who are sacrificing one of life's most important gifts -- time with family, to be in a war many of them were too young to remember when it started.

Although it's a job Klapper gladly takes on -- so gladly, in fact, that with the exception of a short break, she's served in Iraq and Afghanistan continuously since 2004.

Despite this dedication, despite living by the mantra of going where the servicemembers go, much like them, Klapper at times has moments of frustrations. For her, the moment came not through the chaos and fog of war, but the reverend silence of memorial services for the Soldiers whom she befriended during her tour of duty.

"Conducting a memorial service -- that's probably one of the more difficult things," Klapper said, recalling the time in Iraq when she found out a friend had died. "It was in Mosul. I was on night shift and I was told that there was a [communications] blackout because a Soldier had died."

That Soldier, Klapper later found out that night, was a friend -- someone with whom she'd had a conversation just three days earlier as he talked about the woman he loved, his dreams and his fears.

"I couldn't move my legs," she recalled. "I couldn't move anything. I'd just had a conversation with him. It took me two years to be able to take his name off my buddy list.”

Then there was the time she herself became a casualty of war. She’d just finished a 16-hour shift, Klapper said, when the hospital next to the facility in which she worked was hit with a mortar. The impact rocked the building so violently that she fell, injuring her foot and was sent home.

“I didn’t want to go home. I thought, if there were Marines and Soldiers walking around in crutches, why couldn’t I?” she said, her eyes beaming with pride for living the Warriors Ethos many mistakenly think could only be found in the American warfighters.

Yet, even for the most hardened warfighters -- those who have left behind family and friends for what they believed to be a higher calling, who have had to salute friends one last time without getting a salute in return, who have feverishly worked themselves back onto deployments despite being injured, perhaps one of the greatest stings takes place when they’re told the wars are a wasted effort and their efforts not appreciated.

Klapper, too, has felt that sting as she saw Soldiers’ efforts not being appreciated, she said.

“No matter how people feel about the war, I think they need to look at the Soldier and understand that that’s someone’s son; that’s somebody’s daughter,” she said. “They need to understand that Soldiers are tired and they need help -- they need a friend.”

It is that understanding that drives her, Klapper said. Despite the bad days, frustrations and sometimes putting herself in harm’s way, the self-described “do-gooder” said, in the end, she doesn’t hope to get rich from it, but to get a simple “thank you.”

“A ‘thank you’ is what does it for me,” she explained. “At the end of the day, if I could give a Soldier a mug or a cup of tea and they thank me for it, it makes me want to do more.”

Much like a servicemember earning praises from those with whom they serve, Klapper’s dedication hasn’t gone unnoticed, especially among fellow civilians who have volunteered to work overseas in support of the Department of Defense’s mission. One those volunteers is Lorrie Duncan, a friend and fellow contractor on Spin Boldak.

As the base’s laundry facility manager and only one of two women supervisors, one of the first people she met was Klapper, whom she described as very dedicated. Part of that dedication, Duncan said, is ensuring everyone knows about the various MWR events that take place -- not just Soldiers and Coalition Forces, but also civilians and those temporarily staying at Spin Boldak.

“Michelle’s got a very kind heart,” said Duncan, who hails from Omaha, Neb. “She purchases a lot of the items for giveaways with her own money, not because she has to, but because it makes her feel good.”

“If you’re new [to Spin Boldak],” Duncan said, “and don’t know who she is, you’ll know soon enough.”

Page last updated Fri August 12th, 2011 at 00:00