Two heroes, one legacy
By Kenneth Fine
Published in News on June 23, 2013 1:50 AM
4th Fighter Wing Staff Sgt. Kimberly Pate and her late husband, E.J., are shown in this photograph with their dog and children.
go mode, n. a state of mind reached when one sets his or her emotions aside and focuses on the task at hand.
In an instant, she is safe -- protected from the trepidation brought on by close calls outside the wire; shielded from the sorrow that has come and gone since the day a group of comrades informed her that her husband had been killed in Afghanistan.
She can switch it on at any time -- a skill, she said, that is an ally for those who seek out bombs for a living.
But even "go mode," as Kimberly Pate calls it, only lasts so long when her children's faces remind her of the man she lost to an improvised explosive device blast nearly two years ago.
The perimeter of that safe place only extends so far.
So she embraces those emotions she knows she will never be able to escape -- using them as motivation to forever honor a man who laid down his life so one of his men didn't have to by continuing the mission he so strongly believed in.
"I tell my kids all the time that their dad died and got taken from us doing something with a purpose. So we don't get to just shut our lives off now," Kimberly said. "We have to do something with our lives. If we just shut down ... and let it get the best of us, then he is gone for nothing."
hero, n. any person, esp. a man, admired for courage, nobility, or exploits, especially in war.
She didn't join the Air Force for the chance to earn valor devices -- to live a future screenplay.
"I wanted to serve my country -- to have pride in what I did," Kimberly said. "I wanted to give back."
And when a recruiter told her about just what Explosive Ordnance Disposal technicians did for their nation, she saw an opportunity to test her mettle -- to make a real difference in the war efforts mounting overseas.
"He asked me if I wanted to play with robots and blow stuff up for a living," Kimberly said, smiling. "I told him, 'Sign me up.'"
She had no idea just how grueling EOD was -- that 50 percent of those who attempt to make the cut never do; that a woman making it into that particular career field is a rarity.
But even if she had known, it likely wouldn't have altered her aspirations.
"I've kind of always thrived on stress," she said. "And I mean, there were some stereotypes at first. They look at you like you're probably not gonna make it. But it really just drives you more to prove yourself -- to say, 'Yes I am. I can do this the same as you.'"
It didn't take her comrades long to realize that she was driven.
And when she was named one of her class' two honor graduates, she knew she had found her home.
"Once you've proven yourself, you're pretty much there to stay," Kimberly said.
Her career has seen her deploy twice and participate in missions most outsiders would likely characterize as extraordinary.
And when you're in those moments outside the wire, being fearless is your only option, she said.
"You set all your emotions and everything else up on a little shelf in a box and you know that you have a job to do," Kimberly said. "You might realize an hour after you're done with a call, 'Wow. That was really close.' But at the time, it's, 'OK. This wire is going here. How am I gonna figure this out.'"
That, in itself, is enough of a reason for her daughter to consider her a hero -- to think "I could lift a car with one hand and take on the world by myself."
But that word, Kimberly said, is reserved for those, like her husband, E.J., who made the ultimate sacrifice.
The Marine was on a foot patrol when a member of his team stepped on an IED.
"Both of his legs got blown off," Kimberly said.
E.J. sprung into action.
He tourniquetted the man's legs to stop the bleeding and, after he was med-evaced, searched for more explosives.
Moments later, he found a secondary device -- and after setting a charge on it, discovered another.
So he "hopped up on a wall" to ensure the members of his patrol were clear of any remaining threats.
"They saw him reach over to do whatever he was trying to do when the device detonated," Kimberly said. "It essentially blew up in his face."
"The last thing my husband did before he died was save another man's life."
bond, n. a binding or uniting force; tie; link.
Inside one of the offices tucked on a military installation in Kuwait, a group of EOD airmen surround Kimberly.
"I walked in and our new commander was in there, so at that point I was thinking that something major had happened," she said. "They shut the door and I was surrounded by people. My commander, his eyes were bloodshot -- completely swollen -- and at that point I knew. I dropped everything in my hands and stumbled into a desk and just said, 'What happened to my husband?' They didn't answer."
They break down when the news of E.J.'s death is delivered.
"I remember screaming -- yelling and asking what happened. I said, 'Just tell me he's still breathing. Do I need to go to Germany? Do I need to go meet him somewhere? Is he OK?'" Kimberly said. "I don't remember the rest of the conversation."
They tell her how sorry they are -- trying to comfort her after she fell to the ground.
"They kept trying to get me off the floor but I wanted to be as close to the ground as possible," she said.
Nothing would have made that moment OK.
But looking back on what unfolded inside that office is proof, Kimberly said, of just how close the EOD community is.
It's more than a brotherhood.
It's a family.
And in the years since E.J.'s death, it has been those people who have been there through it all.
"These guys are what keep me sane. They understand me without me having to explain how I'm feeling," Kimberly said. "Any time that I feel like I need to get something out or I need to be able to relate to someone, it's these guys. They can send you to therapy, they can send you to a lot of different places, but what really gets us through everything is each other.
"Nobody can really understand it until they've been a part of it."
legacy, n. anything handed down from, or as from, an ancestor.
Kimberly managed a smile when she was recognized, last week, as the American Legion Auxiliary Department of North Carolina Past Presidents Parley's Servicewoman of the Year.
But deep down, the honor is in the opportunity, as a result of the award, to, again, tell the EOD story -- to remind those she and her comrades protect about the sacrifices made by men like her husband in the name of freedom -- and to show her children that they can do anything they set their mind to.
"We do our job. We do everything we can. And to us, it's nothing special," Kimberly said. "Anyone in this position would do the same thing.
"But it's cool for my kids because they are so proud of their dad, and my daughter, she thinks I could lift a car with one hand and take on the world by myself. So just for her to have something like that -- to know that being a girl doesn't count her out from doing whatever it is she wants to do -- that's the cool thing."
After E.J.'s death, she could have left the service.
Nobody would have blamed her.
And Kimberly admits that there was a time when she questioned whether she could endure in the career field that cost her greatest love his life.
"But then, when I had time to sit and actually think about it, this is really more than a job to me. This is my life. This is everything to us. It's a lifestyle. It's an identity, almost," she said. "And this is the way my husband would have wanted it. If somebody was going to not come home, he was going to make sure it was him because, in his mind, those were his men and his responsibility. He was going to bring them all home. So ever since he died, I have done everything I can do to honor him -- to continue his work. And I always will."