FORT CAMPBELL, Ky. – Annette Backlar has spent her entire life traveling the world, whether during her time growing up as a military child or her 32-year career with Department of Defense Education Activity.
Her passion for supporting Soldiers and Families has taken her from Japan and Germany to England and the Netherlands, and it continues to drive her work as a speech language pathologist for Mahaffey Middle School.
“My role is to help and support children with communication impairments so they can flourish and be successful academically and in life,” Backlar said. “When I’m working with them, I can tell them I know where they’ve been. I know the agony of moving and finding new friends, I know what it’s like being the new kid at school and I know what it feels like to have your dad deployed.”
Backlar’s father, the late retired Army Lt. Col. Peter Warren, was in a university ROTC program when she was born and remained on active duty until she was in graduate school, ultimately retiring in 1978 after serving 21 years. He was deployed to Vietnam on two one-year combat tours, returning wounded in action both times and earning two Purple Hearts and a Bronze Star.
“I remember a lot of my friends’ fathers didn’t come back from Vietnam, and it was hard,” she said. “I just remember being devasted for them, and I remember the first two times I saw my dad cry. The first time was when he left for Vietnam, and the second was when he wanted to visit the Family of a helicopter pilot who was shot down rescuing him as he lay wounded in a rice paddy.”
Lieutenant Colonel Warren sustained one of his combat injuries during that incident while radioing for assistance during an ambush, which helped him narrowly escape a fatal bullet wound.
“He said he always lifted his hand up to his ear when he made a call, but for some reason his hand froze and he had to move his head down to the radio instead,” Backlar said. “They were aiming at his temple, and they would have gotten it if his hand had moved up. But because he moved his head down the bullet went into the mastoid bone behind the ear. The doctor said it just fractionally missed the critical area of the spine and came out of his left shoulder.”
Many other war stories echoed through the halls of Lt. Col. Warren’s home when he invited fellow Soldiers over, and Backlar remembers sneaking into the hallway to listen and gain a better understanding of her father.
“Even up until I was in high school, he would still wake up fighting,” she said. “Back then I would wake up extra early to wash my hair, and when I’d go in to wake him up, I learned to touch him, say ‘dad’ and jump back because that was residual from those years of being in combat.”
Although Lt. Col. Warren’s combat experiences were traumatic, Backlar is proud of his service and saw how the Army helped him develop lifelong bonds and strong leadership skills.
“He shared more with my three siblings and I once we became adults,” she said. “But he used to say things like how he’d never ask his Soldiers to do anything that he wasn’t willing to do himself. He always dug his own foxholes because they were digging theirs.”
Backlar also found a lifelong sense of pride in her own identity when her mother hung a framed copy of “Brat is Beautiful,” a poem celebrating military youth, in her childhood bedroom.
She always knew she wanted to give back to the military community, and during the second semester of her sophomore year at Oklahoma State University she figured out how.
“I told my adviser that maybe I’d enjoy working with hearing-impaired kids,” Backlar said. “I don’t know why, but that came out. She sent me over to the university’s speech and hearing clinic and arranged for me to watch some speech and language therapy sessions through a two-way mirror.”
Backlar was inspired by the therapist’s work and decided to forge a similar path for herself, ultimately earning a master’s degree in speech pathology from the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center and later applying for a job with Department of Defense Dependent Schools, DODEA’s overseas branch.
“Working with military kids across the world has been absolutely fantastic,” she said. “I met some of the best kids and Families, and just being able to experience other cultures and living in other countries has been wonderful.”
Backlar met her husband Jim while they were both working as Department of Defense Dependent Schools, or DODDS, instructors in Japan, and their children were born there and raised in DODDS schools. One of her sons, Sgt. Samuel Warren Backlar, joined the Army and is currently stationed at Fort Campbell.
“When his Family moved back to the states after three years in Italy, travel was difficult with COVID-19 so I thought I would just submit for a transfer to Fort Campbell and see what happened,” Backlar said, noting that she was not expecting an opening on the installation.
However, it wasn’t long before Backlar found herself flying to Nashville to start a new job as Mahaffey Middle School’s speech language pathologist. It was her first time working outside of a unit school, which serves pre-K through 12th grade students.
“I wasn’t sure how I’d take to working with just middle schoolers, because they have a reputation of being challenging due to their age,” she said. “But I have to tell you, I absolutely love the job and the kids. When working with the younger population I would have to come up with games or activities to maintain their interest so they’d think we’re just having fun, while targeting their communication goals ... but what I’m discovering is these middle school kids come in ready to work. That’s been really enlightening to me to discover that I absolutely love this age group that’s ostensibly so challenging.”
While Backlar’s time with the students is focused on helping them overcome communication delays, she is also well-positioned to comfort them when the stresses of military life come bearing down.
“It’s gut-wrenching to leave your friends, especially when you get into junior high and high school,” she said. “But one thing I learned is that resilience is important, and the next place is going to be just as good or better. You learn to make friends really quickly, and I think it helps a lot with social skills.”
Backlar uses her own social skills to build relationships with Soldiers and Families throughout the year, just as she does with their children in the classroom.
“I see my role as giving back to military Families, because that’s how I grew up and that’s who I wanted to serve,” she said. “I have a passion for speech language pathology and a passion for serving military Families, and I’ve been fortunate to combine both of those for so many years. Even though I’m at retirement age, I still feel like I have so much to give to the students and their Families, and that’s why I’m still doing it. I’m proud to be an Army brat.”