FORT LEE, Virginia - Sixteen-year-old Kari Atkinson was not thinking about a career in museum management, much less joining the Army, when she was caught skipping school on her way to work. Today the Director of Fort Lee Museums, the journey of Atkinson’s life path changed with that moment.
“It was sort of an accident,” Atkinson said of enlisting in the Army. “I was skipping class to go to work early and I got caught, so I said I was going to the library to take the ASVAB (Armed Services Vocational Aptitude Battery),” she said.
The recruiter showed up at Atkinson’s house that same night.
“He talked to my parents; my father was 100 percent against me joining the Army,” she said. “He yelled and screamed and swore he wouldn’t let me do it and left the house and… my mom signed the paperwork to let me join.”
Thus started Atkinson along a journey worlds away from the small Oregon town of her youth, driven as it progressed by her strength of conviction and willingness to put in extra work to arrive at each step.
Atkinson served as Military Police Officer from 1997 to 2006. “I wanted to do Military Intelligence but I was told you have to be an MP first,” she recollected.
Her Army career took her from Basic Training at Fort McClellan, Alabama, to a first duty station in Heidelberg, Germany. Atkinson then deployed to Greece and Macedonia for Operation Task Force Falcon, guarding the Port of Thessaloniki and equipment as it was transported into the continent and back down. This was followed by assignments at Fort Bliss, El Paso, Texas and Fort Buchanan, Puerto Rico.
“I started as PV2 or Private 2nd Class, since I brought a friend with me and they gave me credit, and I got out as a Staff Sergeant. It was a good career progression,” she said. “I would have stayed in longer had I not been injured but I love where I am at now, where my career path has taken me. The military provided me that first stepping stone.”
After being honorably discharged, Atkinson enrolled in the Vocational Rehabilitation Program, a Veterans Administration program that helps veterans with disabilities prepare for and obtain suitable employment.
The VRP enabled Atkinson to attend college, bringing new dimensions to her career. She received a bachelor’s degree in Archeology from State University of New York, Pottsdam, then on to graduate school at Syracuse University. Although she initially enrolled in the Library Sciences master’s program, along the way she discovered instead a passion for museum studies and cultural preservation.
“I swore to myself that I was going to do something I was going to enjoy,” she said. “I wasn’t going to get into a career just to have a job or any other arbitrary reason, it was something I wanted to get up and do every day."
“I graduated from Syracuse with a master’s degree in Museum Studies and a Certificate of Advanced Studies in Cultural Preservation, and immediately got a job at the National Park Service in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park in Tennessee,” she said.
Starting as a federal employee, again at what she referred to as the bottom of the work force, just as she started at the bottom of the enlisted ranks, Atkinson next worked with the Naval History and Heritage Command, Illinois, then transferred to the Fort Bliss Museum in Texas.
“I worked for a wonderful individual named John Hamilton who became a mentor to me,” she said. “He knew where his skills ended and mine began.”
She described how they saved a museum with an uncertain future. “I went from curator to director at that museum,” she said. “Before COVID we saw 90-100,000 people annually, we had most of the foundational issues fixed, had hired a full staff, had full support from the Division, still going through its redesign, all the exhibits for Fort Bliss and 1st Armored Division, and incorporated the Museum of the Army of the Noncommissioned Officer.”
“Before I left I was the director of four entities, out of technically three facilities,” she stated. “Really proud of what happened there, the museum is no longer in danger of closing, they have a lot of support, and have a lot of great programs.”
From the director position at Fort Bliss, she moved up to Museums Director at Fort Lee where she supervises the facilities, staff, exhibits, design, and education at all three facilities.
Two public museums, the Army Women’s Museum and the Quartermaster Museum, are currently open to visitors. Everything is free and open to the public. To visit, one can acquire a pass to the installation via the Visitor Center, no military ID required. The third facility, the Ordnance Training Support Facility (TSF), is reserved for training Soldiers and supporting research and development (not open to the public).
As the Fort Lee Museums’ U.S. Army Center of Military History supervisor for the staff of these three facilities, Atkinson said she is at the strategic level bringing together all the museums and moving forward into the future as a whole.
Atkinson reflected on how far she has come from her roots. “I was from a poor family in a tiny town in the middle of nowhere,” she said. “My options were McDonalds drive through manager or getting married 17 times and having a miserable life, there wasn’t much for me there…There were not a lot of options. College was never even on my radar or any type of professional career was a dream you saw on TV, that was not how I grew up as a child. So the military not only provided me the option to get out of that and make something better of myself but it opened my eyes to the rest of the world and to all the other opportunities that are available once you leave that tiny little town.”
Now Atkinson has, through her perseverance and dedication, found a career she loves.
For more information about the U.S. Army Center of Military History visit www.history.army.mil
To find the Army Museum nearest you, including the Fort Lee Museums, https://history.army.mil/museums/directory.html