By Kari Hawkins, USAG RedstoneOctober 29, 2010
REDSTONE ARSENAL, Ala. -- In the military world, the wife is often the spouse who follows her Soldier to destinations near and far.
But for the Kirk family, that scenario has taken a decidedly different turn.
Wendy Kirk, wife of now retired Army National Guard Sgt. 1st Class Todd Kirk, left her "forever career" as the executive director of the United Way of Northeast Arkansas earlier this year to pursue a career as the chief operating officer of the United Way in Madison County. The move was good for her family in many ways, including providing her husband with better job opportunities following his military retirement.
"We know God had a reason for us to be here," Wendy said. "It just all fell together for us. It was meant to be. God brought us here."
"Our home is in Arkansas," Todd added. "But it's so easy to love this place. The people here are very nice."
Still it was a move that took a lot of soul searching and determination to step out of a future that at one time looked like their destiny.
"My family was there. We're from there. It was my forever career," Wendy recalled. "But Todd told me to at least make a call to see if this was something we might want to do."
All the signs definitely pointed to Huntsville as their new home. Huntsville, known for its support of the military and its veterans, offered Todd a much better job market than their hometown of Jonesboro, Ark., which is heavy on farming, light on industry and includes Arkansas State University. Huntsville offered lots of quality of life amenities - such as good schools, an extensive social network system, a top-notch Army medical facility and a growing economy with lots of defense-related companies - that made it an appealing destination.
But on top of all that, the move to Huntsville was a matter of faith.
"I wasn't looking for a new job. I was looking for a job for a friend who wanted to move to Huntsville and work in the information technology field. I made a few calls to help him," Wendy said.
As she was making those calls, Wendy made contact with a local realtor on her friend's behalf. The realtor was involved with the United Way and knew the agency was in need of someone to fill the newly created chief operating officer position. A few phone calls later, and Steve Kirkpatrick, the local United Way's chief professional officer and president, was making plans to go duck hunting in Arkansas on a trip that would also include a recruiting visit with Wendy.
"Quite frankly, I was not interested," Wendy said. "But everything all of sudden looked like Huntsville was where we were supposed to be. And then Todd asked me 'Now, Wendy, are you discounting God in all of this'' What can you say to that' We never know what God has in store for our family."
The Kirk couple and their 12-year-old son, Jacob, visited Huntsville in January. Wendy began her new job in February. A few months later, with Todd retired from the Guard and their son out of school for the summer, the family began building their future in Huntsville. Their daughter, 20-year-old Katelyn, and her husband and daughter, hope to move to Huntsville in the future.
Of all the things they have been impressed with in Huntsville, Fox Army Health Center is a standout for the Kirk family.
"It is the most amazing Army facility I have ever seen. It rivals the private sector in the quality of service," Wendy said. "It's unbelievable. They have been so kind, so courteous. Everybody from Tricare to the physicians to the nurses are the kindest people we've ever met."
Following his wife's job opportunities isn't the way things started out for the Kirk family when Todd was a young, enlisted Soldier. Twenty-one years ago, Wendy went with her husband to Fort Stewart, Ga., where he served on active duty as a combat engineer with the 24th Infantry Division, 3rd Engineer Battalion, and deployed to Southwest Asia.
"Katelyn was born four weeks before they left for Operation Desert Shield/Storm," Wendy said.
Despite missing those early months of his daughter's life, Todd "loved blowing things up. As a combat engineer, we would go in before the infantry and clear minefields. We were the guys who had a half-a-minute life expectancy in a combat zone."
While he was gone, Wendy involved herself in family support activities, a forerunner to her interest in the work the United Way supports.
"I was very independent as a military wife," she said. "I learned to do things on my own because I didn't have a choice.
"I was the enlisted representative for the 24th. We were so young and so new. We were so poor we couldn't even balance the checkbook, much less be on our own. But it was important for me to be involved. I really wanted to make a difference. Working to make a difference, to have an impact, just seemed to be a calling for me."
"My whole military career, she has been involved with the families and the Soldiers," Todd added.
After four years of active service, Todd transferred to a full-time Human Resources position with the Arkansas National Guard, and became the senior Human Resources non-commissioned officer for the 875th Engineer Battalion prior to the unit's 2006 deployment in Operation Iraqi Freedom.
"We were a chemical depot. But when a Guard unit is mobilized, most of the time it doesn't mobilize in its current configuration," Todd said.
"The unit reorganizes and then retrains for a specific mission, which, for us, was route clearance. So, I had to work to get 700 Soldiers in the right configuration to complete the new mission. I had to make sure we had Soldier readiness for the mission."
Preparations for deployment also included making sure Soldiers had the support of their employers and that paperwork was completed to receive military benefits.
"The Soldier readiness process is pretty complicated when you are in the Guard," Todd said. "When you deploy, you change from having your employer benefits to having Army benefits.
If you don't have the paperwork completed correctly then your family doesn't have the benefits they are entitled to. Guard Soldiers lives are completely uprooted when they deploy and we have to help them with that, and make sure all the paperwork and documentation is correct."
For Wendy's part, she organized a fund-raising effort that raised $240,000 to pay for expenses incurred by the unit's younger Soldiers when they returned home from training at Fort McCoy, Wis., prior to the deployment. The funds were also used for family emergency needs while the Soldiers were in Iraq.
Once in theater, Todd and an HR staff of 10 managed the Soldiers HR requirements, including all the paperwork for promotions and leave. During the deployment, the unit's Soldiers cleared 2,500 improvised explosive devices, had 38 casualties and one death.
"I loved taking care of Soldiers. I loved making sure everything was taken care of so they would get their promotions. I liked working on their HR issues and personnel actions," Todd said.
For his efforts in Iraq, Todd received the Bronze Star. Besides the standard HR procedures, his work in theater, which combined his HR expertise and his college degree in computer information systems, involved the creation of a mobilized Soldier database that assisted with the reorganization of the battalion in its new role with route clearance missions in Iraq. He also managed the casualty reporting process for 38 casualties, and tracked the status of 12 Soldiers who were evacuated from theater. And he managed plans to integrate 39 Soldiers who joined the unit after the deployment to theater, which were essential to maintaining unit strength and contributing directly to its mission.
The 2006 deployment wasn't Todd's only National Guard deployment. Other missions included an assignment as an Oregon Chemical Depot guard in 2003. He was also deployed to Egypt and Jordan.
"We spent half our married lives apart with his deployments," Wendy said.
Todd's last assignment was to provide support for 200 Soldiers deployed to Afghanistan. Before his retirement, he made sure all their paperwork and other HR requirements from the deployment were completed. The unit is returning in about a month.
"They still owe me a retirement party. I'm waiting until they get back to get my party," Todd said.
Todd hopes to find a position in the Human Resources field in Huntsville. In his own job search, Todd has been aided by Still Serving Veterans.
"It's a wonderful organization. I have a case manager who is helping me with the ins and outs of the federal hiring system, and how to manipulate my resume to focus on positions that are available," Todd said. "He has also helped me with my Veterans Administration benefits."
Until he finds the right career move for himself, Todd is volunteering with the United Way, where he has upgraded the agency's computer network to Windows 7.
"My goal is to find a job where I can still help Soldiers, if possible," he said. "That's my expertise. I understand their needs. That's where my heart is."