Soldier finds riches helping Baghdad's poor
CAMP BLACKJACK, Iraq — When Kate Norley’s mother, Pam Mannion, meets friends back in Maryland, conversations center around catching up.
“My daughter’s at Princeton.”
“My daughter’s at UVA [University of Virginia].”
“This person’s at Georgetown.”
Then, someone will ask Mannion about Norley.
“When she says, ‘She’s in the Army,’ they say, ‘Oh, I’m so sorry.’ Like it’s somewhere I had to go,” Norley said.
Don’t be sorry, Norley said.
Inspired by the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks in New York and Washington, D.C., Norley decided the best way to help her country at war was to join the Army after attending the Episcopal High School boarding school in Arlington, Va.
She said she believes she’s making a difference in Iraq working as a 91 X — or mental health specialist — with the Fort Hood, Texas- based 1st Cavalry Division’s 15th Forward Support Battalion.
It was an easy decision to take a tough job, Norley said.
As Spc. Kate Norley, she counsels soldiers who have combat fatigue, who have fought too many firefights, who have had friends die in battle, who have pulled body parts out of a Humvee after an ambush.
There was the time recently when she talked to three soldiers who didn’t want to go back into combat. “Then you find out later the guy sitting right in front of you a few days before has been killed,” she said.
Without getting through the superficial to the substance, it’s easy to focus on the cover-girl looks, the boarding-school pedigree and the affluent family.
Her stepfather, Dennis Mannion, is senior vice president of business ventures for the Baltimore Ravens of the National Football League. And Norley hobnobbed at a Ravens game with Tom Ridge, Homeland Security secretary, before deploying. Her mother is from a family wealthy in its own right.
It would be easy to describe Norley as the debutante who has fallen to earth.
It just wouldn’t be fair. And not entirely accurate.
Her mother and birth father, Walt Norley, who designs golf courses with Jack Nicklaus in Florida, divorced when Norley was 4.
When she was 16, Norley was riding her bicycle to a soccer tournament when a speeder ran her down. She ended up with a severe head injury, losing all her cognitive skills, and having to learn to read and write again.
In her Army life, she takes pride in her tolerance for anything war can throw at her: in being happy to wear her desert cammies as long as necessary; to carry her weapon with the same authority; to eat Meals, Ready to Eat ’til the cows come home.
“Ask anyone,” she says. “They’ll tell you, ‘Norley doesn’t care.’”
Whatever she was, “I’m a soldier now,” she said.
Norley is one of the support soldiers always lobbying to go outside the wire to work with the Iraqis living on the edges of Camp Blackjack, said Lt. Col. Ray McCarver Jr., her battalion commander.
“Here, within the limits of [military occupational specialties], we don’t see gender,” he said. “All I want her to do is keep helping soldiers traumatized in battle.”
Norley was ready to sacrifice when 9/11 hit. She went online, first looking at the Peace Corps. Then she saw the Army Web site and noticed she was only about 45 minutes from a recruiting office.
When she got there, the Army recruiter looked up and said, ‘May I help you?’
“So, here I am,” Norley said.
In explaining why she’s here, Norley notes that she grew up in a family in which affluence didn’t mean being above it all. Her mother, Norley said, is “kind and compassionate,” engaged in volunteering.
Her stepfather, Norley added, “always told me he wanted me to cut my own path.”
Joining the Army is, however, not exactly the path he imagined, Dennis Mannion said in a phone interview from the Ravens’ executive offices.
While neither he nor his wife tried to talk Norley out of joining, “we asked her an awful lot of questions, trying to get a sense of what this was about,” he said.
They came away satisfied Norley was joining out of a lifelong feeling for people — the disadvantaged and the underdogs.
“She wants to help in a meaningful way,” Mannion said.
Two years in, “I’ve never seen her happier and more focused,” he said.
He said he’s confident Norley is getting a far more complete education in the Army than she would have in Ivy League schools —– and then some.
Her first week in Iraq, a spent 7.62 mm round came through the roof of her room, landing on her chest. Norley said she was scared when she woke up and saw the hole it had made in her ceiling.
She turned 19 in basic training, then 21 — the milestone she dreamed of celebrating at the beach — in Iraq.
She can count the number of friends she’s kept from her old life on one hand, Norley said.
“They went one way, I went another.”
But she gets e-mails from the steadfast saying, “‘What you’re doing is so much more important,’” she said.
Outside the wire, among the squatters on the edge of Blackjack, she seems in her element. She draws happy faces on bandages she puts on boys’ scraped knees. She kisses babies and hugs ragged girls while admiring baby chicks offered to her in friendship.
She dreams of founding an organization — free of politics and religion — to send American women to the Third World so other women can see what it’s like to have rights and power. But she still has more to do in the Army.
“If they told me tomorrow I could go home ... I wouldn’t be satisfied I’m finished with what I set out to do,” Norley said.
Away from the lush life, she goes to bed at night exhausted and scared, she says, but content “knowing I’m doing things I never dreamed I was capable of doing.”