Earning their keep

Three women who work at the Department of Veterans Affairs clinic on Kauai say their service in the U.S. Army prepared them for whatever life sends their way.

Mindy Uemura, Corissa Kopmann and Donna Kong said it is important to honor the men and women who have served in times of peace and war.

Kopmann, a medical support assistant with the Rural Health Program, started with the VA in 2012.

“Women veterans should thank their service for letting them know that anything is possible,” she said.

Kong, a registered nurse for VA Specialty Care since 2004, said she felt a little like Goldie Hawn in “Private Benjamin,” a film out around the time she enlisted about a sheltered woman thrown into basic training. Her drill sergeants keyed on her meekness and would say, “Here comes Private Benjamin,” but she said they taught her to be a soldier first and to keep that mentality.

“It changes you and it challenges you,” Kong said. “It makes you see what you are really capable of when you don’t think you even have skills to do it, but you do, and it makes you a stronger person and builds character.”

Uemura, a program support assistant with the VA since 2012, believes a two-year commitment in the military would benefit any young man or woman. As a single parent, she said it was difficult to be separated for long periods of time, but the overall experience taught her to take care of herself and protect her kids.

“I was a ‘girly girl’ going in and I wasn’t going out,” Uemura said.

In the early 1980s, there were not as many women in the Army and there was discrimination, but she overcame it with trust among her male colleagues, she said.

“I didn’t feel like I put up with more harassment, but I felt like I had to work twice as hard to be equal,” she said.

Donna Kong

Kong was raised in Kekaha and left for San Francisco soon after graduating from Waimea High School. She worked as a secretary and joined the Army in 1981.

“I decided that I couldn’t do this for all of my life,” she said. “I wanted a career, but I had no money to go to school, and fortunately, I got into the profession I wanted to which was nursing.”

She started out as a medic and then qualified to what is the military equivalent of a licensed practical nurse. She was stationed in Texas, first at Fort Sam Houston and then Fort Bliss at William Beaumont Hospital. The mostly male environment sometimes meant being overlooked for responsibilities that went to men, she said. Those incidents were few though, she added, and looking back it was a tight bond among nursing and medical staff that worked cohesively as a team.

“When I left the Army in 1984 I went straight to work at Wilcox hospital as an LPN and I was able to make the comparison with the military hospital,” she said. “I found that we, as nurses, were permitted to do a lot more in a military hospital than a civilian hospital.”

Kong went on to earn a degree in nursing from Kauai Community College and worked at Wilcox for 10 years.

She was director of nursing for a care home and also a home health agency before this opportunity came to work at the VA.

Mindy Uemura

Uemura is a West Virginia native who served in military intelligence and after a break in service, reenlisted to work in mortuary affairs.

“When I joined in 1981, they were still calling us WAACs (a World War II term meaning Women Army Air Corps),” she said.

After completing intelligence school at Fort Devens, Mass., Uemura was sent to Germany, where she worked in radio counterintelligence and also had the inenviable job of listening in on military phone conversations for people discussing classified information.

“Nobody liked us, but this was not a time for being careless,” she said. “We had to make sure the Russians and the East Germans were not getting it.”

Among her favorite memories in Germany was the day the Berlin Wall came down. East Germans were driving their tiny Trabant cars across the border and reuniting with families that were separated for more than 40 years.

After a four-year break in service, Uemura reenlisted and went to work in Graves Registration, which later became mortuary affairs. Her job was to follow the forensics teams and pick up the remains for return to the United States.

“A team would go in, ID the remains to say they are here, and then we would go in later and actually recover them,” she said.

There were times when she presented the burial flag to the families and commanded the rifle squad. They would accompany the remains until a burial guard received them.

“We could not leave the plane until the new honor guard came to receive the remains,” she said.

Corissa Kopmann

Kopmann grew up in Gifford, Ill, and was in her early 20s when she joined the Army in 1998.

“I had two daughters and needed financial stability,” Kopmann said. “I needed to be on my own and not have to rely on anyone else and the military was the answer to that.”

It wasn’t easy. She had just given birth to her second daughter and was medically cleared to go to basic training after four months.

Her basic and occupational schooling were combined and so she didn’t see her daughter again until it was nearly her first birthday. She was united with her daughter after leaving Fort McClellan, Ala., for Schofield Barracks on Oahu.

“It was really hard just not being able to be there,” she said. “I was there a long time.”

Kopmann was a chemical operations specialist. She was trained to decontaminate equipment and personnel in the event of a chemical, biological or nuclear attack, in addition to operating smoke-generating equipment.

She competed for soldier of the month to speed a promotion and won the company, battalion and division competitions for the 25th ID, and then earned NCO of the year honors for the division in 2002.

It was quite an accomplishment for a woman in an infantry unit, where she had to demonstrate expertise with military knowledge, land navigation, physical readiness and weapons.

“It was really hard going up against male infantry soldiers,” she said.

It paid off as she was promoted to sergeant in less than four years and to staff sergeant in five. She was the face of her division and was formally introduced at balls and dinners.

When Kopmann was deployed to Bosnia, one of her duties was to drive the staff judge advocate around to settle disputes with the local citizenry.

She visited Sarajevo and saw the former Olympic village destroyed. In town there were half-blown up buildings with people still living in the remaining portions seven years after the war.

Kopmann was in the sixth year and stationed in Fort Hood when she was about to deploy to the Middle East, but she was allowed to leave on the Family Care Plan.

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