I had a bout of sleeplessness last night and peered out into the darkness for a long while, Daisy on my lap, the silence of fields on either side and in front of our small farm keeping watch with me. I thought about those Army women who have gone through Ranger School. Before too long, my thoughts turned to Kim, Sherod’s and my niece. I had only been married to Sherod a few months when he, his sister and most of her family, my mother-in-law, my step-daughter and I, all went to Fort Rucker, an army base here in Alabama, where quite a lot of helicopter training takes place. Kim had gone through college with the ROTC, and now had successfully completed flight training. We were at Rucker for the graduation ceremony.
This was 1988, when hair-dos were poufy, dresses big and shoulder pads even bigger. I wore my wedding dress, a relatively simple linen and lace, Talbot’s, tea-length dress, and I laugh now because even that dress had shoulder pads. Yuk! In her dress uniform, Kim was as stark and severe as we were frou-frou. I don’t say that critically—I was in awe of a young woman, still in her early twenties, who had already been seriously tested. Responsibility, discipline and duty were not new to her. Like Sherod, her dad, Clyde Enderle was an airman who was killed in the line of duty when his aircraft was shot down not too long after Sherod returned from Vietnam. There were some brutally hard times after that for her family and Kim started learning leadership skills when she was knee-high to a grasshopper.
The night of her flight school graduation, one of her cousins on her dad’s side of the family, also an officer with the Air Force, would do what I think we all desperately wished her dad could have done for her. There’s a pin involved and it is supposed to be decorously pinned to the person’s uniform. But there is a variation on that practice. The Army says it frowns on this tradition but I don’t think it really does, at least not completely. It’s called getting your blood wings–getting your blood wings means the person doing the honors literally jams the pin into your flesh. It is a very concrete reminder of the depth of commitment our military folks make to serve—even unto death. That night, Kim got her blood wings and I still wince, though my memory of that moment is that she stood ram-rod straight and flashed that brilliant Kim Enderle smile. I imagine Clyde was beyond proud of his girl that night.
Kim went on to serve in Bosnia, Germany, Korea, Iraq, and Afghanistan, with tours State-side as well. By the time she retired a very few years ago, she was a Lieutenant Colonel. There are so many different parts of her military career and her patriotism that I am deeply moved by. But perhaps the thing I am most proud of, as her aunt, is Kim’s courage as a gay woman. On the one hand, the call to serve was deep and strong, she was following in the footsteps of uncles, great uncles, and her own father. She was highly accomplished as a helicopter pilot and a strong leader—she responded to a sacred call when she joined the Army.
On the other, it was in that culture that Kim wrestled with, and finally accepted, who she was: a gay woman and beloved child of God who could not deny that God-given truth about herself. Love has come and love has ended through the years for her. I have seen the honesty, the struggle, the moments of great joy and goodness as well, in the commitments she has made—she has honored her relationships like she has honored every other part of her life. For a long time, she learned about loving under the constant threat of losing her vocation. The years when she lived under the shadow of being dismissed from the army for who she was, and even during the years of “don’t ask, don’t tell” were hard. There was pain and disappointment that the country and army she served saw her as “less than”, a liability to be easily discarded. What I was able to witness, time and again, was her willingness to sacrifice enormously, in all kinds of ways, so she would never compromise her pledge to serve. She served with distinction, integrity and honor.
There are all kinds of heroes in the world. Kim is one of mine…