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Volunteer Blazes New Path With Passion for Troops

By Fred W. Baker III
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Feb. 20, 2007 – When it comes to connecting troops and their families with services they deserve, Pat Kerr is in a league of her own -- literally.

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Missouri State Veterans Ombudsman Pat Kerr shows off a photo of her daughter, Army Reserve Capt. Kate Numerick, who is serving her second tour in Iraq. Photo by Fred W. Baker III
  

(Click photo for screen-resolution image);high-resolution image available.

As the only paid state veterans ombudsman in the nation, Kerr spends her time battling bureaucracies, raising money and advocating for servicemembers, their families and veterans in Missouri.

But folks shouldn’t let the salary fool them; Kerr’s passion for taking care of troops began long before her tenure at the Missouri State Veteran’s Commission.

It started at home, right after the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Kerr’s daughter, an Army Reserve officer, was deployed two weeks after the war in Iraq started in March 2003. The care for the soldier’s 13-month-old son fell to Kerr. This came as Kerr was also caring for her husband, who was dealing with serious medical issues.

Even though Kerr and her family members thought they was ready, Kerr said, they quickly realized they were not.

“She kind of looked like a deer in the headlights with her notice,” Kerr said of her daughter. “Even though after 9/11 we sat as a family and made a plan. We knew she would get deployed.

“We were shocked,” Kerr said.

Kerr’s husband is a pastor and a licensed professional counselor. Her daughter is educated and working on her doctorate degree. Kerr was trained on coping skills while dealing with her husband’s near fatal injuries following a serious accident. With all of the education and training in her family, Kerr said, she realized that if she had difficulties, so would many others.

“We decided that if we, who had trained coping skills, … are a little overwhelmed by what’s coming down the pike, what’s going to happen to our Guard and reserve (members) who don’t have our professional background,” Kerr said.

So, two weeks after her daughter left, Kerr began organizing events like “Support Your Troops” at the state Capitol. Working nights as a secretary and dipping into savings from her court reporting business, Kerr paid for many of the expenses herself. The events drew thousands, and state officials began looking to Kerr to help set up similar events and soliciting her input on the development of troop-related programs.

Kerr also started advocating on behalf of troops who were stuck in the gaps between the local, state and federal systems. At that time most of problems troops were facing were not well known, she said.

“We started talking about the gaps in the system. And people would say ‘What gaps?’ So I would use real examples,” Kerr said.

“What about the guy who lost his eye in Ramadi?” she asked. “The soldier has three children, and his wife wants to come back to Walter Reed (Army Medical Center here) with him.

“Who’s going to pay for his child care seven days a week, 24 hours a day? Even if they have it in savings, why should they have to pay for it?” Kerr said.

Eventually Kerr was brought on board the state-run Missouri Veterans Commission with the mission to raise awareness of the commission and to identify gaps in the systems.

That led to the Missouri legislature, the governor, the Missouri Veterans Commission, and the Missouri Association of Veterans Organizations formalizing her position as state veterans ombudsman.

Since taking the post, Kerr has coordinated more than $600,000 for servicemembers, families and veterans through private citizens, corporations or veterans service organizations. Her efforts have kept 16 homes from being foreclosed on.

Kerr has helped a brain-injured soldier who was stuck in a hospital bed for three months without his family. A clerical error made it impossible for officials to locate his family, and his brain injury kept him from helping. Kerr reunited him with his family, who was only 30 miles away. She worked with the family members to get the soldier’s disability rating raised.

Kerr arranged services for a mother of four children -- three in diapers -- who broke both of her arms while her husband was deployed–. Kerr arranged for 24-hour care helping the mother with cooking, cleaning, diaper changing and getting the children to school while she healed.

There was also the Korean War prisoner of war who hadn’t received a penny of the benefits coming to him. He didn’t even know he was eligible until she began her outreach program and a family member asked about his health care.

Kerr’s service has even rubbed off on her grandson, Abraham, 3.

While caring for her grandson as his mother served in Iraq, Abraham regularly accompanied Kerr to visit injured troops.

One day when planning to attend a movie, Abraham had 11 cents in his hand. Kerr told him to put the money in his pocket, but instead he offered it up as a donation. “He said, ‘No Grandma – you give this to your injured troops,’” Kerr said.

“I was overwhelmed,” she added.

Kerr took the idea to the Missouri Veterans Commission and the lieutenant governor and parlayed it into a school education campaign. Dubbed “The Power of 11 Cents,” the program focuses on educating children on patriotism and America. Kerr said she wanted to allow the children to help support the troops but not focus the campaign on the war.

Originally started on Veterans Day, the program encourages younger children to donate 11 cents and older students donate $1.11. Abraham’s act of selflessness led to the creation of a statewide school outreach program that Kerr hopes will raise $50,000 for the state military family relief fund. Guard and reserve troops can apply for $1,000 grants from the fund.

Kerr’s daughter is now on her second tour to Iraq, and Kerr is again caring for Abraham. Her personal experiences help Kerr empathize with those she helps.

“I know these issues. I’ve lived these issues. I know what these families are talking about,” Kerr said.

Kerr’s daughter will have served two rotations in Iraq before her son turns 5 years old. She has missed many of the firsts in a child’s life that most mothers cherish. But, in spite of the sacrifices and the inherent dangers, Kerr said she supports her daughter’s decision to serve.

“I am extremely proud of her. I am extremely supportive of what her commitment is to our country, and I am forever grateful,” Kerr said. “Because I am not a brave person to go out and do what she is doing, I can only do what I am doing."

As the list of those she helps gets longer, Kerr is quickly becoming in demand across the nation. Even though her primary focus is on those with residence in Missouri, Kerr said she fields calls from all over the nation asking for help.

It’s a job Kerr describes as “way cool” and one she has no plans to quit, even after her daughter comes home or the war is over.

“I am probably going to do this forever. This is not going to go away. We are going to be dealing (with veterans issues) for my lifetime,” Kerr said.

“I’m going to support our troops. I’m going to teach our veterans and reach out to the families of those who have injuries,” she said.

It is a higher calling that everyone and every community must answer if Americans are to live free, Kerr said.

“By relying on our citizen soldiers, … (supporting them) becomes a great onus on the state and employers and schools and civic organizations and churches,” Kerr said. “We have to work together as the United States of America. We truly have to be united in order to accomplish protecting the borders of America.”

Editors Note: While Kerr is the only state veterans ombudsman with a state veterans commission, servicemembers and veterans can contact veterans commissions in their home states to inquire about state benefits by going to the Web site of the National Association of State Directors of Veterans Affairs at http://www.nasdva.com/.

Military families can also avail themselves of the Defense Department's America Supports You program, which highlights home front groups across the nation that are providing a variety of services and support to troops and their families. A listing of these groups and information about their efforts is available at www.AmericaSupportsYou.mil.

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Click photo for screen-resolution imageMissouri State Veterans Ombudsman Pat Kerr with her daughter, Army Reserve Capt. Kate Numerick, at a change of command ceremony. Courtesy photo  
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Click photo for screen-resolution imageMissouri State Veterans Ombudsman Pat Kerr with her daughter, Army Reserve Capt. Kate Numerick, at a Support Your Troops event at Jefferson City, Mo. Courtesy photo  
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