Having served at the Pentagon in the 1970s, it was especially difficult for Kate Barker to watch what transpired on Sept. 11, 2001, the day terrorists drove a plane into the headquarters of the Department of Defense, killing 125.
Barker, the Richmond Hill librarian since 1993, remembers the day well. She was in Statesboro at the regional library for training.
“When we got the word,” she said, “all I wanted was to come back and be with my children. That’s all I could think of — to see and hold my children.”
Although it had been more than 20 years since she worked there, and most, if not all of her colleagues had left or retired, Barker nonetheless was shocked and horrified of that and the other attacks that morning, she said, “but I can’t say I was terribly surprised.”
The morning’s events brought back memories of Operation Entebbe, an event on July 4, 1976, that had special meaning to Barker, who is Jewish.
Entebbe was a counter-terrorist/hostage-rescue mission carried out by commandos of the Israeli defense forces at Entebbe Airport in Uganda.
Barker, an administrative specialist for the Army in the Panama Canal Zone at the time, got to know many U.S. Special Forces soldiers. She said she was impressed that only one Israeli soldier was lost in that operation.
“It is just a testament to how skilled that unit was,” she said.
“To show you how small the world is,” Barker told the story of a connection she had to that one Israeli soldier who died at Entebbe. He was Yonatan Netanyahu, the brother of Benjamin Netanyahu, the prime minister of Israel.
Here’s where the connection comes in:
“One of the men who served with Yonatan in that unit a few years earlier went to school and became an ob/gyn, (in the Savannah area)” Barker said, “and in 1990, delivered my son.”
She didn’t know it at the time, but learned the background of her doctor while reading his obituary years later.
For Barker, her time in the military (five years, ending in 1979 when her enlistment was over) was spent learning skills that would prepare her for her second chapter, as librarian for the Richmond Hill Library.
“One thing we have done (at the library) is … I’ve always been intensely aware that this is a military community and that we have different needs because of that,” Barker said.
The last time computers were changed in the library’s computer room, Barker insisted that the keyboards get common access card readers installed, essential for people on active duty. She said CAC readers are used to access records.
Also, through a free language learning system called Mango, the public can use the library to learn languages like Arabic, which can come in handy for service members headed to the Middle East.
Approaching her 65th birthday, and her 25th year as librarian, Barker reflected on the journey that got her here, one that emphasizes continual learning and an appreciation of those who served.
Born in Jacksonville, Florida, but reared in Florence, Alabama, Barker was the oldest in a family of two brothers and a sister.
She said she felt obligated to join the military: “Other people had served, and now it was my turn.”
In 1974, she attended a chaplain’s assistant course at Fort Wadsworth, on Staten Island, NY. She says her time there was “miserable,” mostly because of the physical environment.
Having grown up in the South, she was not accustomed to the cold weather, nor the condition of the structures, having been built by Robert E. Lee in the 1840s, when he was with the Army Corp of Engineers.
“The oldest part of the fort was filled with deep rifle port windows and the walls ran with condensation that froze in the winter and turned green with mold in the summer,” she remembered.
Barker was the honor graduate of her class and was promoted from private first class to specialist 4 at graduation. She was expecting to be transferred for her first assignment, but “because one of the instructors was removed from the staff the day I graduated, I was kept at the school and reported as an instructor the following Monday.”
However, she was able to get that transfer the following year to the Panama Canal Zone.
Sent to Fort Clayton, on the Pacific side of the Canal Zone, she was assigned to be the assistant to the brigade chaplain.
“Mostly the work entailed typing and other secretarial work. However, I was also the chaplain’s driver which meant that I had to learn to drive a Jeep (which has a manual transmission),” she said. “The driver’s seat would not slide forward enough for me to reach the pedals. I had to get a seat cushion to put behind my back in order to sit far enough forward to drive.”
After a few months she got an assignment on the Atlantic side of the zone.
She lived in the barracks at Fort Davis, but worked as the ops clerk at the Atlantic Tactical Operations Center (TOC) at Fort Gulick. “This was the job that would teach me many of the skills I continue to use to this day.”
She said she was “blessed to work” with Capt. Patrick Dockery and Master Sgt. Malliot, both of whom served tours in Vietnam with special forces.
She considered Dockery a true leader.
“He told me that there would be times that I would be alone in the TOC and would have to make decisions,” she said. “He said he would back me up in front of everyone else, and if I was wrong, he and I would discuss it later and no one else would ever know.”
Working with the Special Forces battalion, Barker said, was a gift.
“It was so special because I learned so much about, not just the war stories, although that was important, but just how people operated and how different it was in combat.
“Working with the SF troops was an amazing experience. They taught me how to operate tactical radios, read maps, even how I should act if I was ever in a hostage situation.”
Barker added, “I was privileged to listen when the guys would talk about their experiences in Vietnam, Thailand and other countries. I learned more about war and life from listening to them than I ever could from the history books.”
She even had an opportunity to reach new heights, literally.
“The colonel said how would you like to go to jump school? And I looked at him and said ‘thank you very much sir, but I get dizzy standing on a chair. I can’t jump out of planes.”’
She said she was very happy being on the ground and in an office.
In August 1977, a colonel who had remembered Barker from his days in the Canal Zone, requested she transfer to the Pentagon. She remained there until May of 1979.
She said the majority of her time was working in the administration and personnel section of the Army chief of staff. Barker managed the chief of staff conference room, was the department parking control officer and managed military awards/recognitions.
“I worked with some great professionals and learned not to become discombobulated at the sight of a general officer.”
She met her husband, Rich, who was serving in the Army’s “Old Guard” and had their wedding in the Old Chapel at Fort Myer in February 1979.
“In May and June we finished our commitments and left the Army to use our GI Bill benefits.”
After graduation from the University of South Alabama, Rich returned to the Army as an officer and after a number of moves, was stationed at Fort Stewart. After his return from Desert Storm, he left the Army and works for the Bryan County Board of Education.
They have continued to live in Richmond Hill where they raised two children (now adults) – Amanda, who still lives in Richmond Hill, and Ian, in Denver.
Growing up, Barker had always been a reader and enjoyed libraries, she said, so becoming a librarian was a natural fit.
She said the job has changed immensely over the years.
“When I started here, we had the physical card catalog. We didn’t have computers. We were still putting the cards in the back of the books,” she said.
“The skills I learned in the Army and the adaptability have allowed me to change with it. Being around other people who enjoy the services of the library have been a positive thing for me,” she added.
“People tend to think of libraries as just shelves of books. But the library has so many more services. We have the audio books, the DVDs. We have e-books, downloadable audio, and the computer room for people to use.”
Barker holds a special place in her heart for those who saw combat.
“I was very blessed that my service was at a time when we weren’t at least publicly in a shooting war,” she said. “After what I saw people coming back from Vietnam go through, my time in the service was so easy. I can’t tell you how much it affects my heart what the Vietnam veterans went through.
“We owe our veterans so much. They’re the ones who go in those places and do those hard things that we don’t have to do. I admire people like that.”
She said she uses her job as a librarian to help honor veterans.
“If I can do anything to help by purchasing books for this library about PTSD or about how a family copes when someone is deployed, or veterans benefits – any of that – if I can do that, it’s just a teeny tiny part of carrying on the legacy.”