Karen and Terry Neneman both served in the Navy and have dedicated a combined 30 years of active duty and reserve service.  ANTON ADAMEK/REPUBLICAN-LEADER
Karen and Terry Neneman both served in the Navy and have dedicated a combined 30 years of active duty and reserve service. ANTON ADAMEK/REPUBLICAN-LEADER
"This is our country . . . somebody gave up something for us to have it," expressed Karen Neneman, a veteran of the United States Navy and proud citizen of the United States.

She and her husband, Terry, understand sacrificing to serve their country; Karen served 10 years and is now a disabled veteran and Terry served 20 years between active and reserve duty and is now the postmaster president for Lanesboro, Fountain and Wykoff.

Their combined 30 years of service taught them many lessons, led them to meet each other and especially gave Karen an insight into the changing social dynamics toward women in the military.

Karen grew up in Prescott, Ark., with her six sisters, one brother and parents, Earl and Della Gourley. After high school, she went on to college and got married.

The Vietnam War was going on at the time and her husband at the time had served overseas. "I thought it was a good way to show your patriotism," Karen said, describing her feelings of patriotism early in her life.

Karen determined she would enlist after she separated from her first husband and dealt with the loss of her father. "I was looking for direction," she explained. "It seemed like a good place to find direction." She was 31 when she signed up.

It was not a life decision expected of women nor common among them at the time Karen went to the recruiter's office. Though she saw several women also signing up at the time she did, Karen was surprised. The expectations she and many women felt at that time, even in the early '80s, were to get married and be a homemaker.

"In the south, joining the military wasn't something a woman would do," she said.

Karen stepped out of not only her comfort zone, but the social norms at the time.

Originally desiring to be in the Air Force, Karen did not make the age cutoff and enlisted in the Navy instead. She reported for boot camp at Orlando, Fla., in December of 1981.

Karen recalled the first few hours of her boot camp experience. "The recruiter had said they would meet me at the plane and take me there . . . we got there (Orlando) and got into this mini-van . . . by the time we got to camp, they had been screaming at us for an hour. We got off the bus and had to stand in line. It was like 2 o'clock in the morning . . . got to bed at 4 and got up at 6."

Karen's boot camp unit was one of the first female units to carry rifles everywhere they went. Karen didn't think the physical aspects of camp were too difficult, but she did find herself learning how to take instruction.

"I'm an independent person," she explained, recalling how it was tough for her to listen to her superiors in rank, many of who were younger in age than she. Karen's humbling experience did not break her as did the physical demands on the younger girls.

"A lot of women didn't make it through," she recalled.

After three months of boot camp, Karen was transferred to a school in San Diego where she was trained as a data processor. She was then moved to Washington, D.C., and worked at the Navy Personnel Military Command as a data processor. Among her duties, Karen acted as a courier to the Pentagon from her base.

"It was just a job to me," she recalled the feeling she had when she was in the Navy.

For the first two years, she worked with detailers in matching jobs with the sailors, typed orders and played what she called a "numbers game" to ensure everything was accounted for. She was then transferred to Pearl Harbor, Hawaii, where she did a double tour. She worked in a duty station that managed the Navy's barracks and a submarine base where she entered maintenance data for the submarines. No women were allowed to serve on submarines.

Her future husband, Terry, knew this because he served on the USS Indianapolis submarine as a machinist mate.

Karen saw first-hand the changes that have been made in the way women were perceived and their roles in the military.

"There was definitely inequality, especially in the submarine force," she recalled. "Men saw women as taking their jobs in the military."

Due to high-profile reports of women being mistreated and other factors, Karen and the women in the military began to have more opportunities to voice their thoughts and achieve higher rankings. Women, their treatment and equal roles in the United States military continue to be issues today.

"I saw the changes coming and saw some of it happening while I was in," Karen shared and adding, "Some people think they have power over you because of their rank and they don't."

She recalled an experience when an officer used language Karen did not want to hear. She told him so, "I didn't join the military to hear language like that. I joined the military to be patriotic."

Her drive to serve her country caused Karen to devote herself to serving 20 years. Unfortunately, she cracked her kneecap during a drill, which severely impeded her ability to pass running tests and prevented her from serving longer.

"I never thought that I didn't give it all I had and I'm prouder for not quitting," she explained.

She credits her life experience prior to enlisting as helping her deal with the physical, mental and emotional strain the military could deal out.

"If I had gone in when I was 18, I would have never made it," she stated.

The experience and strength Karen feels she gained from her service is something she feels everyone should experience to some degree. "They need to know that the freedom we have, we aren't entitled to it," she added.

Whether that means the military or the Peace Corps, Karen wants the rising generation to "realize freedom isn't free." Both she and Terry are grateful for what Veterans Day means to the families of those who sacrificed their lives.

"America owes them a debt of gratitude," Terry interjected. "This country wouldn't be what it is if not for the military."