ROCK ISLAND ARSENAL, Ill. - As a preschooler, Kelly Ann Guerra dressed as a nurse for Halloween since it was her dream to become one.
She never wavered from that goal and she is now Army Major Guerra, a 19-year veteran of the Army medical field who serves as the First Army senior physician assistant. She is also a recipient of the 2020 Latina Style, Inc., Distinguished Military Service Award, which recognizes exemplary conduct and a commitment to military service by Latinas in uniform.
First Army Commanding General, Lt. Gen. Thomas James Jr., who nominated Guerra for the award, noted that she has positively impacted the deployment readiness of Reserve and National Guard Soldiers during the COVID-19 pandemic.
“From the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, Maj. Guerra was adaptive and responsive, as she quickly re-focused her efforts to preserve the health and readiness of the force,” James said. “She took the initiative to develop web-based screening questionnaires to provide units with important tools to assess the health of their force as they continued to mobilize. In addition to developing battle drills and policies to minimize risks of COVID-19, she actively screened personnel returning from travel and provided quarantine recommendations to headquarters leadership.”
Guerra credited careful forecasting and teamwork with being the keys to First Army’s successful pandemic response.
“Once COVID hit, we had to come up with a plan on how we were going to have battle drills in place in case someone in our headquarters was effected,” she said. “And in the bigger picture, how we were going to keep our Reserve Component forces safe as they were mobilizing and deploying under First Army. All of us got together and came up with a plan on how we were going to mitigate the risk and keep our force healthy and accomplish the mission.”
All this represents the fulfillment of her lifelong dream to serve in the medical field. Her parents, Roberto and Ana Guerra, came to the United States during the Salvadoran Civil War, and they instilled in their daughter a belief that big dreams can be achieved through grit and determination.
“They always told me growing up that I had to focus on education because that is what is going to help me succeed in life and they always advised me to strive my hardest to be successful,” Guerra said.
While the drive and passion were present, a way to pay for it was another matter.
“I enlisted because I didn’t have money for college and I met a recruiter who let me know I could still reach the goals that I had by joining the Army,” she recalled.
Guerra enlisted as a health care specialist. She studied biology at the University of California-Irvine and completed her nursing certification.
As her studies advanced, so did her military career. Guerra was serving as a staff sergeant when she was accepted into the Inter-Service Physician Assistant Program as an officer candidate. She completed that training at Fort Sam Houston, Texas, commissioned as a first lieutenant, earned a Bachelors of Science, then a Masters in physician assistant studies.
Her military career led her to three African countries in 2015, where she fulfilled a variety of missions. This included offering humanitarian medical assistance in Djibouti, providing medical training to Burundian forces, and serving at the U.S. Embassy in Kampala, Uganda, where she worked in the security cooperation office. And she still found time to be a volunteer Spanish teacher to U.S. service members.
In Guerra’s current position at First Army, she monitors medical readiness for the unit and advises the commander on any force health protection measures required to keep everyone safe and healthy.
While she played a key role in First Army’s COVID pandemic response, the new reality has forced her to scale back one of the favorite aspects of her duties.
“Before COVID, I was getting the chance to travel to different brigades, to meet our medical personnel there, mentor them, learn from them as well, and share their best practices with the rest of First Army,” she said. “As the senior PA, you’re the one that mentors and leads the rest of the pack, but when everybody is so geographically dispersed, it’s a little bit of a challenge to have a sit-down with each of them and go through what their career path and goals and how I can help them to get there.”
The award has given validation to her parents’ words about where dedication and hard work can lead.
“It has meant the world to my family,” she said.
Guerra added she would advise young Latinas to ignore naysayers.
“They can do whatever they want to do in life. It’s a lot of hard work and dedication but it does pay off in the end and they can achieve anything they set their mind to.”