Milaca's 'girl' soldier inspires students

Commander Amber Manke of the Minnesota National Guard spoke to Milaca Elementary third-graders last week about her job in the military and the importance of Veterans Day.
Commander Amber Manke of the Minnesota National Guard spoke to Milaca Elementary third-graders last week about her job in the military and the importance of Veterans Day.

Milaca High School graduate Amber Manke has a strong sense of giving back.

Whether it was that ingrained value that led her to join the Minnesota National Guard or her time in the military that instilled such a sense of duty, she isn’t certain. She is sure that speaking to Milaca Elementary School third-graders Tuesday, Nov. 12, was the least she could do to give back to the school and community that supported her early journey to becoming who she is today.

At 28, and with nearly eight years of service already under her belt, Manke has held such titles as human relations officer, education services specialist and captain. On Oct. 1 she accepted a position as commander in her 34th Infantry Division of the Minnesota National Guard.

Manke drew on those experiences and that sense of obligation to her hometown to describe her job to the young, bright faces in the audience last week. She explained why the students had Veterans Day, Monday, Nov. 11, off from class and homework.

“Do you think you had off so you could play video games? Do you think you had off so you could antagonize your brother or sister?” she playfully asked the third-graders.

Students were also given a lesson in how they should address various service members.

“I like to be called a solider,” she said. “People in the Navy don’t like to be called soldiers. They like to be called sailors.”

It became obvious that Manke wasn’t quite what the young students were expecting when they entered the theater and whispers of “It’s a girl!” could be heard over the drone of the crowd. She told the students that when her grandmother was younger, the only job the military would let her do was in nursing. She said these days, “girls” like herself can do any job the military offers.

“That’s pretty cool, huh?” she said. “I think it’s cool to see girls in the service.”

Manke fielded many questions from the curious youngsters, including why she joined the military.

“I like being a soldier,” she said. “I love going out and making sure you guys are safe back here.”

Other questions included:

“If you quit your job, would you give back your outfit?” (“No, but I’d stop wearing it.”)

“Who is your chief?” (“President Obama.”)

“Why do we have an army?” (“To keep us safe.”)

After her presentation to the students, Manke sat down with the Times to speak in further detail of her time and accomplishments with the military.

During the last few weeks of Manke’s deployment to Kuwait in 2012, she received a troubling phone call. Her stepfather had suffered a massive stroke and the family wasn’t sure he’d make it. Manke rushed home to the states to be at her mother’s side.

Shortly after returning home, Manke was notified that she had been chosen to be a Tillman military scholar.

This photo taken for the Tillman Foundation exemplifies Manke's mantra: Attitude is Everything.
This photo taken for the Tillman Foundation exemplifies Manke’s mantra: Attitude is Everything.

The Tillman Foundation was created after NFL star Patrick Tillman placed his football career on hold to enlist in the U.S. Army and was subsequently killed by friendly fire while serving in Afghanistan in 2004. The foundation selects nearly 60 post-9/11 service member recipients from the thousands of applicants each year to assist with higher education expenses not covered by the Montgomery G.I. Bill military education benefits.

Having applied for the scholarship months earlier and with her stepfather’s recovery the first thing on her mind, the notification came as a shock.

You can imagine my astonishment,” Manke said. “It’s incredibly humbling.”

Manke is using the additional education support to pursue her Ph.D. at the University of Minnesota in organizational leadership policy and development.

“The financial side of it is just one piece of the foundation,” she said. “They’re building this community and it’s unlike anything I’ve ever been a part of. It builds you to give back to your community.”

Coming to speak with youngsters in her hometown is exactly the sort of thing the foundation encourages from its scholars.

“These things — I love doing them,” she said. “This is the next generation of service members and when I hear them walking in saying, ‘It’s a girl! It’s a girl!’ — this is my hometown and I love changing those perceptions of female leaders.”

Manke’s drive to lead and contribute was encouraged by the Pentagon’s decision earlier this year to lift the limitations from woman service members. However, she isn’t convinced the road will be immediately and magically easier going forward.

“I think we’re still going to have to work hard to break through that glass ceiling,” Manke said. She added that as a newly made commander, she has 160 National Guard members under her supervision and the vast majority of them are men. “I think we work well together. We compliment each other. When I was approached with it, of course I was ecstatic to be chosen as commander, but it does present its own challenges.”

As a Tillman scholar, Manke was flown to California last December to participate in a charity football game, complete with celebrities such as former NFL quarterback Kurt Warner, retired college football coach Bobby Bowden and Hollywood funny man Owen Wilson. After a U.S. paratrooper jumped into the stadium with the game ball, Manke played a mean game of pigskin with her fellow scholars and the star-studded volunteers.

“They had personalized lockers with our names on them and I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, this is a big deal. They’re going to expect us to be good!’” she said. “It was an incredible experience.”

The game played on the field may not have been up to NFL standards, but it was entertaining enough for the Tostitos tortilla chip company to run footage of the charity game as part of one of its philanthropic marketing campaigns.

The foundation also gave Manke the opportunity to combine two areas of her life of which she has strong emotions. After a bit of encouragement from a friend, Manke participated in the New York Marathon Nov. 4. As a competitor for the Milaca High School track and cross-country teams, the event wasn’t out of Manke’s purview, but it was a little out of her comfort zone.

“I am passionate about running. I love to run,” she said. “But I don’t do races and I don’t do marathons.”

Like some wise decisions, Manke came to the conclusion she’d make an exception this once while chatting with a buddy in a dive bar in Chicago.

Manke set out to raise the necessary $4,240 to secure a charity position in the marathon. She raised that and then some. Manke donated the $4,611 she collected to the Tillman Foundation.

“I thought this foundation has given so much to me, I need to give back,” she said. “My goal was under four hours and I did it in three hours and 57 minutes.”

Manke’s mantra, “Attitude is Everything,” certainly personifies the soldier’s approach to life. She hopes to finish her education in fewer than two years and beyond that, she’s going to continue bringing her positive attitude and leadership capabilities to the U.S. military table.

“I will continue to serve. I’ll only stop wearing the uniform when I no longer enjoy being a soldier,” she said. “Sure, not everything is glorious and it’s not always happy, but I take pride in it.”