by Capt. Jonathon Daniell
Chief Warrant Officer 2 Kimberly McGee softly echoed those words as she recalled the greatest inspiration in her life, her grandmother.
“That was a very powerful message she told me: you don’t ever have to clean floors, I’m doing it so you won’t. You have all the opportunity in the world… so I embraced it.”
McGee, a 20-year veteran of the U.S. Army, serves as the accountability officer for 35th Air Defense Artillery Brigade. She earned her graduate degree in global history in 2015 and recently applied for a doctorate program that begins in the fall. She is a volunteer, mentor, teacher and so much more. However, the journey to the woman she is today is in stark contrast from her tumultuous upbringing.
McGee was three days old when her mom dropped her at her grandmother’s doorstep, and that’s where she stayed until her mother returned six months later. For the next 13 years, McGee and her three siblings went back and forth between the two caregivers, until her grandmother became their legal guardian. Her mom struggled to find the right balance, while her dad, a Vietnam veteran, battled his own internal demons.
Now, I understand that he was probably battling episodes of post-traumatic stress disorder. Unfortunately, I don’t think the services and treatment were available back then like they are today, said McGee.
Despite the challenges McGee faced during her formative years, her grandmother provided her and her siblings a life of encouragement and stability. A fan of books for as long as she can remember, all McGee wanted for her ninth birthday was a library card. Her grandmother made good on the request and from that moment on reading became an intimate part of her life.
McGee grew up in Prentiss, Miss., a small town just northwest of Hattiesburg.
Most believed sports and academics were the only two ways out, but McGee wasn’t a star athlete and she didn’t believe her high school prepared her for college.
However, she had a blueprint for success, and McGee knew that if she made the right choices, she could succeed. She had multiple family members who chose the Army as a means to change their lives. McGee’s uncle returned from Vietnam, funded his own way through law school working as a paralegal and is a sitting judge in Mississippi.
In high school, she had already mapped out her exit strategy, then her life changed forever when she became pregnant her senior year.
“My grandmother told me to do something with myself, everyone goes through trials and tribulations, but it’s how you come out of a situation that shows your true character and who you are. Change your life, so you can change your daughter’s life.”
Her daughter Kayla was only 15 months old when McGee departed for basic training at Fort Benning, Ga., Nov. 23, 1996. She remained under the care of her grandmother, in the town McGee was trying to escape.
McGee arrived to her first duty station as a supply specialist and immediately displayed a tireless work ethic, to which her leaders took notice. Her noncommissioned officer in charge, Staff Sgt. Esmeralda Lourdes, encouraged her to continue her education and within months, McGee enrolled in college.
Methodically she completed class after class, and while stationed at Fort Hood, Texas, in 2002, she earned her bachelor’s degree in History.
Despite McGee’s overwhelming success in uniform, the stressors outside the service tested her resiliency.
Days before McGee deployed to Tikrit in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom, she learned of her grandmother’s illness. However, the knowledge of her prognosis didn’t soften the pain when she received the American Red Cross message while deployed. McGee attended her grandmother’s funeral Oct. 3, 2003, and then returned to Iraq to complete her deployment.
Now, McGee is the one giving back, and feels it is her inherent duty to help others. Soldiers routinely seek her out for mentorship and each time she responds in kind.
Since arriving at Osan Air Base, Republic of Korea, in February 2016, she has assisted multiple Soldiers in submitting their packet for warrant officer candidate school. During lunch, she often meets Soldiers at the gym to help them reach their physical fitness goals. In her off-duty time, she volunteers with a female mentorship group and teaches for Central Texas College.
In November, she graduated from the warrant officer advanced course and true to form, she excelled. The students and cadre voted McGee to receive the leadership award, a reflection of her selfless dedication to help others. She also won the iron woman award for notching the top score on the Army Physical Fitness Test.
For McGee, life has come full circle. She has deployed four times over the course of her career and spent countless weeks away from her daughter at the Army’s combat training centers. She views the sacrifices she has made for her daughter not as a measure of what she has missed, rather, as a measure of what she has given her daughter.
“When much is given, much is required. I truly believe I’ve sacrificed so she could have a good life. I didn’t want my daughter to walk in my footsteps; I wanted her to have some of the good qualities I have, like work ethic and treating people with dignity and respect. I wanted my daughter to have a good life, and the Army provided that.”
McGee’s daughter is a student at Southern Mississippi University, pursuing her bachelor’s degree in social work. Her tuition and board are paid in full by the sacrifices made by her mother, grounded in inspiration from a powerful message. l Capt. Jonathon Daniell is with the 35th Air Defense Artillery Brigade