Editor’s Note: Faces of Freedom is a series of features highlighting the bravery and dedicated service of Naval Information Warfare Center (NIWC) Atlantic military veterans. From the Tower at Home is the second installment of this series.
Up in an air traffic control (ATC) tower at Camp Pendleton, California, two Marines received the news: the U.S. would lead an international coalition known today as Operation Desert Storm.
The two women exchanged a knowing look — both of their husbands deployed to the area of operations months earlier, where they remained until the end of the Gulf War.
“I will never forget that moment,” said Kathy Gebhard. “We shared a common bond … husbands fighting for our country overseas, children at home to love and care for, and a mission as Marine Air Traffic controllers to support the aviators preparing for operations on that day and in the future.”
It was only a few years earlier when Gebhard got her start in ATC, but the importance of home station support remained a common thread throughout her career.
At 23 years old, Gebhard enlisted in the U.S. Marine Corps after completing boot camp in the freezing cold from November to January at Parris Island, South Carolina. She later received orders to the ATC school at the Naval Air Station in Millington, Tennessee.
The first years of Gebhard’s service didn’t go quite as planned. She was eager to see the world away from home and serve her country in combat. She thought she wouldn’t be seeing home again for a while after shipping off to school, but her follow-on assignment led her to Marine Corps Air Station Cherry Point in North Carolina.
“I wanted to be where the action was,” said Gebhard, but would ultimately end up in a non-deployable unit.
Though she wouldn’t change a thing about her career, Gebhard learned a valuable lesson about military service.
“Not everyone can go to combat. Someone has to stay behind to run the bases and keep the airfields going,” she said. “We had to keep the airfields running efficiently so Marines and soldiers could continue training for combat.”
The job at home came with its own challenges. During her career, Gebhard assisted with many aircraft emergencies from the tower and honed her ability to remain calm under pressure.
“Even in emergencies, you still have to do the job,” she said. “You still have to get the aircraft on the ground safely while doing your best to suppress your emotional instincts.”
By the time Gebhard concluded her eight and a half years of service, she and her husband had been all over the world, including assignments at duty stations in Japan, North Carolina and California.
Eventually Gebhard and her family ended up in Charleston. She hadn’t applied for any jobs and planned to take a break from working, when NIWC Atlantic called in 2008.
“They wanted me to do air traffic control on the ice,” said Gebhard, who worked as an air traffic controller in Antarctica for four months as part of NIWC Atlantic’s role in supporting the National Science Foundation.
“I was hesitant to say yes because it’d been over a decade since I last controlled an aircraft,” she said. “But I was excited for the chance to take on a challenge, travel and serve the men and women in uniform.”
Eventually she transitioned to logistics support, where she trained as a delivery order contracting officer representative for aviation-related contracts.
In 2011 she shifted into her current role when she volunteered to be a full time Navy purchase requisitioning trainer. As a training coordinator, she also coordinates the trainings taught by over forty other instructors. It’s Gebhard’s job to make sure her NIWC Atlantic colleagues meet the training requirements they need to serve the warfighter in their own roles.
“My husband and I continue to support our country, me as a training coordinator and lead and him as a defense contractor instructor in support of Coast Guard training,” said Gebhard.
Though Gebhard isn’t on call 24/7 as a Marine anymore, she contributes to the Navy mission every day at NIWC Atlantic.
“I know firsthand how important our work is here. The folks holding things down at home are indispensable.”
As a part of Naval Information Warfare Systems Command, NIWC Atlantic provides systems engineering and acquisition to deliver information warfare capabilities to the naval, joint and national warfighter through the acquisition, development, integration, production, test, deployment, and sustainment of interoperable command, control, communications, computer, intelligence, surveillance, and reconnaissance, cyber and information technology capabilities.