By Cecilia Chan, GSN Managing Editor
Holly Katke remembered waking up, thinking she had passed out from the heat.
Just minutes before, Katke, a Navy chief petty officer, was walking around the police station in Iraq trying to hydrate herself.
She pushed herself up and saw blood streaming down her arm.
The combat medic corpsman, who provided lifesaving medical care for her fellow soldiers, had been shot in the head by a sniper.
The bullet pierced her nape, drilled through her brain and lodged behind her left eye.
Katke’s story is a story of a valiant hero who met heroes of another kind in Gilbert – people who helped her as she made a painful transition to civilian life that had been altered forever by a sniper’s bullet.
Only the night before she was shot, Katke had been told by her commander that she had become a “high-value target” because the enemy learned of her work. At that point, she had been in Iraq for six months and the United States was nine years into its war on terror.
Katke, who knew four languages, including Arabic, had been recruited by Special Operations Command for a joint operation with the Navy SEALs. Her mission was to gather intelligence from the village women who came to her with their children for medical evaluations. Iraqi women are banned by their custom from talking to men.
Also the night before she was shot, Katke was told she was going to be sent stateside and that in the meantime she should stay behind the wire, where she would be safer.
“The way I looked at it, is the guys going out tomorrow,” Katke recalled from her Gilbert home. “I said, ‘What’s the difference if a female goes out. The guys are targets. What makes me any different?”
The following morning – on April 15, 2010 – she went out on what would be her last mission before flying home. It was also the day before her 30th birthday.
Then, a sniper’s bullet changed her life forever.
“She was not supposed to survive,” said Gilbert resident Annie Remsburg, who befriended Katke eight years ago. “These are very strong men and women and are used to fighting back. She came back and proved them wrong.”
It took three months for her brain swelling to subside before surgeons could remove the bullet.
During her time in the trauma unit of a military hospital in Bethesda, Maryland, she was dubbed “Hope Trauma. “
“When patients are removed from Iraq or Syria or Afghanistan, our names are not posted,” Katke explained. “All patients are given other names, a medical name.”
The toughest part was waking up from her month-long coma and being told she was a mom. Her daughter Leah was then just 4 years old, but Katke had no recollection of her.
Gradually, the single mom and her daughter reconnected.
Katke was next sent off for rehab to a veterans hospital in Tampa, Florida – and there she met Remsburg, whose son Cory arrived there the year before.
Cory Remsburg was a U.S. Army Ranger on his 10th deployment when he was severely injured on Oct. 1, 2009, by a roadside bomb in Afghanistan. He suffered traumatic brain injury and is blind in the right eye and partially paralyzed on his left side.
As of Nov. 5, the various conflicts in the Middle East have resulted in 6,821 U.S. military killed and 52,732 wounded in action, according to the U.S. Department of Defense.
As of November 2016, 166 U.S. service women had lost their lives and 1,033 had been wounded in action in combat operations since 2003, according to the latest data from Congressional Research Service.
After two years in Tampa, Katke was retired by the military, joining the growing rank of women veterans.
In 2015, women comprised 9.4 percent of the total veteran population in the United States. By 2043, women are projected to make up 16.3 percent of all living veterans, according to the U.S. Department of Veteran Affairs.
Katke, who received the Purple Heart medal and a number of other military distinctions, moved back with her daughter to Washington state, near her hometown of Port Angeles – population today just under 20,000.
Her desire to escape that small city and see the world had compelled then-17-year-old Katke to enlist.
One day, the high school student drove down to the recruitment center to find that the Air Force office closed for lunch and the Marine Corps had no medical unit. So she joined the Navy because it has corpsmen.
Katke, who had simultaneously taken community college courses while in high school, became a licensed practical nurse and wanted to use those medical skills. She was sent to boot camp when she graduated high school at 18.
Her injury closed 14 years in the military as she began life as a civilian in Sequim, Washington, a city with a population of about 6,600.
She was a single mother taking care of a daughter and dealing with war injuries that have left her legally blind and paralyzed on her right side – which forced her to learn how to do even simple tasks with only her left hand. She also has speech and language problems or asphasia.
“Sometimes I am at a loss for words,” said Katke, who uses a cane to walk. “It’s hard to describe things.”
Despite that, she went on to earn a bachelor’s degree in health sciences and a master’s degree in global health taking online courses from Trident University.
Her daughter and her school work kept her going, but Katke was miserable living in Sequim. She was isolated with no family or social support. And the drive to the VA hospital in Seattle was a six-hour round trip.
Remsburg all this time had been keeping in touch and noticed in their phone conversations that Katke was sinking into depression.
“I finally said, ‘If you are really unhappy, why don’t you move?’” Remsburg recalled.
She responded she had nowhere to go.
“My heart went out to her when she said that to me,” Remsburg said. “I responded, ‘Yes you do honey. You can move anywhere you want to and we will help you.’”
Remsburg and her husband Craig immediately became Katke’s advocates. They reached out and applied to nonprofits on her behalf to find her a home.
“I love her like a daughter,” said Remsburg. “I refer to her as my adoptive daughter. She refers to me as mom.”
Carrington Charitable Foundation in California stepped up to the plate. The charity has donated more than 20 new and renovated homes to veterans, and Katke was the group’s first woman veteran it has helped.
Katke said she wanted to move to Arizona. She had visited the Remsburgs through the years.
The charity group bought and renovated a one-story home in Gilbert, retrofitting the house for compliancy with standards under the Americans with Disabilities Act.
Although Katke uses a cane, she sometimes has to resort to her wheelchair when she becomes fatigued.
In mid-October, Katke and her daughter, who will turn 14 on Nov. 16, moved into their new home. They live a mile from the Remsburgs.
Annie Remsburg didn’t stop there. She connected Katke with social and veterans support groups. Health services are also within reach. The Veterans Hospital is in Phoenix and there is a VA clinic in Gilbert.
Throughout that time, Remsburg and her husband also were going through their ongoing ordeal with their son, who suffered traumatic brain injury during his service in Afghanistan.
“He was injured at 26, he’s only 33,” Remsburg said. “He’s had some severe impact from the brain injury, which means he needs assistance.”
Katke, who is scheduled for speech therapy soon and has been going for counseling, said she still gets depressed but not as much now because of the support available to her.
She said at times she thinks about her life now and how she is not the same person.
But she has no regrets about enlisting.
“Absolutely not,” Katke said. “I would do it again without a doubt.”