Sisters in Arms

Two sisters heed the call of duty and redefine themselves as both women and soldiers.

By Tom Gordon

In northeastern Afghanistan, about 250 miles from the country’s capital of Kabul, sits a dusty military camp named after Mike Spann, the CIA operative and Alabama native who was the first American to die in the war on terror during a prison uprising nearly 11 years ago in the nearby city of Mazir-e-Sharif.

Those stationed at the camp include troops from Germany, Croatia, Albania, Canada and other countries, and dozens of soldiers with a National Guard unit from Mike Spann’s home state. The soldiers belong to Echo Company, part of the First Battalion of the Alabama National Guard’s 167th Infantry Regiment. For the next seven months or so, they will conduct security missions throughout northern Afghanistan, escorting convoys and helping protect contractors and military officials during visits to Afghan villages and meetings with their Afghan counterparts.

“We’re pretty busy here,” said company  First Sgt. Daniel Blair in an early September email. At the time, in missions lasting several days or just a few hours, E Company soldiers had been driving heavy Mine Resistant Ambush Protected vehicles, or MRAPs, through starkly beautiful mountains and over long flat stretches where daytime temperatures topped 100 degrees and virtually nothing green was  growing.

It’s commonly said that the infantry is a young man’s game, but two of the mission vehicle drivers are double-digit years older than most of their Echo Company colleagues. They also are women. And while you might not think so at first glance, Specialists Amy Milliron, 40, from Alabaster, and Amanda Burkowski, 34, from Leeds, happen to be sisters.

The two are not allowed to do missions together, but Blair says they are doing them well.

“Both are driving all over the country and in the mountains and have a very essential task and are a key part in our success,” said Blair, who lives near Sylacauga. “They’re responsible for the maintenance of the trucks that are assigned to their team and also the safe travel of the crew.  The roads here are very hazardous and the traffic here — well, multiply the way people drive on 280 in Inverness and Highway 459 times 10, and that may be an understatement! All of our drivers make it look easy, but these two soldiers set the standard and are examples that others follow and often lead the way in all this madness.”

In an early September telephone interview from Camp Spann, Amy Milliron reflected on the 10 or so missions she has been on so far, usually as a driver, and echoed Blair. The roads on which she travels are usually unpaved, filled with bicycles, motorbikes, cars resembling Camrys, 18-wheelers, all of them driven by people “without regard for anyone else.

“It’s insane, it’s unbelievable,” she said. “There was no way you could train for something like this … unless you’d been through it before.”

By definition, any war zone can have plenty of insanity, and Afghanistan has had its share. More than 2,000 Americans have died in and around the country since 2001, according to the website, 18 of them from mid-August — when nearly 600 soldiers with the 167th’s First Battalion  arrived in the country — through early September.  Since 9/11, it’s been a common assumption that anyone who joined the military faced the likelihood of being deployed, and often to a war zone where fighting can break out almost anywhere at any time and involve female troops, even though current Pentagon policy does not allow women to serve in front-line combat units. That fact was common knowledge four years ago, when Amy Milliron and Amanda Burkowski sisters joined the Guard within several months of each other.

An obvious question is why, at this time in their lives, they chose to join, and it was posed to each of them in late July when they and the rest of the battalion were finishing up pre-deployment training within the hot and muggy confines of Camp Shelby, Ms. It also was raised with their parents, Barbara and Michael Burkowski, who has Purple Hearts from two wound-shortened tours as a Marine in Vietnam.

“A lot of my family served in the military,” Amy Milliron said. “My dad did. My husband’s dad did. My uncles did. My grandfathers did. It’s something that was always appealing to me but never really fit in with where my life was, and (when) my husband and I closed our moving company (after) 16 years, we were at a crossroads and it was an opportunity that presented itself to me.“

The opportunity has affected her and her husband Leif, but also their three children – Mary, 17, Anna, 14, and Michael, 12.  The Hewitt Trussville High graduate said her girls have generally had a “way to go Mom” attitude toward her deployment, but her son is a little more anxious about it.

“His only idea of war is what he’s seen on TV so he’s terrified, terrified for me to go,” Milliron said.

On the night that Milliron was en route to Afghanistan, her husband and children were talking about her and what her absence means. Mary, the oldest, was headed to Judson College the next day to start her freshman year, and the number of place settings at the family dinner table, already down to four, was about to drop to three. Leif Milliron, a strapping man who at the time was sporting a ponytail, referred to his and Amy’s years in the moving business and said the family already was accustomed to periods when one parent was absent.

“So this is just a little longer,” he said.

“A lot longer,” his daughter Anna said quietly.

“Going a little further,” he said.

“A lot longer,” Anna said again.

Milliron has a photo of her family hanging in her living quarters at Camp Spann. She said she calls home about once a week, e-mails more frequently. There may already have been moments when she has yearned for the company of her kids, and some of those moments may have been triggered by what she sees every time she heads out on a mission.

“Every time I go outside the wire, it looks like someone kicked over an antbed of kids,” she said. “Most of them wave, some of ‘em throw rocks, some of ‘em jump up on the back of the truck and try to steal stuff off of it. It amazes me.”

Unlike her children and husband, who have fair features and blonde hair and blue eyes, Amy Milliron has dark brown hair and green eyes. She has a willowy bearing that makes her seem taller than the 5-foot-9 she is and a smile that conveys acceptance and seems easily given. By contrast, her sister Amanda is fair-featured, shorter, more compact, and her smile seems like something to be earned, not readily granted.

But that reserve masks a longstanding desire on the part of the Jefferson Christian Academy grad to take risks, be adventurous and be of help to others — be they the elderly, Alzheimer’s patients, Iraq and Afghan war veterans seeking to regain some of the skills that war wounds have taken away, or communities hit by natural disasters. Following the April 2011 outbreak of tornadoes, both Amanda and Amy pulled security duty in separate Guard assignments in Cullman.

“You’ve got to take chances,” Burkowski said. “You’ve got to live day by day. If you’re not willing to step out and take a chance every now and then, why are you here?”

Both Burkowski and Milliron could have balked at the deployment, but both chose not to do so. And so now they are relying on what any soldier in harm’s way has always relied on: their training, their instincts and the alertness of their fellow soldiers to see them through.

If all that proves to be not enough, well…

“Honestly, I don’t want to go and die, but I want to go and serve my country, and do what I signed up to do and check it off the block,” Milliron said. “Obviously, people get killed. Obviously, people get hurt. I just have faith in the Lord that if it’s my time, it’s my time, regardless of where I am.”

“I hope none of us gets hurt,” her sister said. “I hope we all come home. But if I do get hurt, I know that I’ll be okay because there’s stuff out there for me to do, there are folks that will help, so I’m okay with all that.”

So far, during Amanda’s training and deployment, the only casualty has been the proper pronunciation of her name. So, as her father frequently did during his time as a Marine, she answers to “Ski.”

“I prefer that it not be slaughtered,” she said of her last name. “’Ski’ is not slaughtered.”

Michael Burkowski, who spends most of his time at the U.S. Military Academy in West Point where he heads the employee assistance program, came out of Vietnam twice on a stretcher. The first time, the former sergeant had multiple gunshot wounds to his left leg. The second, he had sustained shrapnel wounds, a lot of them to his face. His daughters are in a different kind of war in a different kind of place, but both have long looked up to him, and he has another reason now to return the favor.

“For someone to step up to the plate … where things are going to get nasty, dirty and scary, that speaks to their character to me,” he said. “That makes my heart bulge with pride.”

At the same time, he is not surprised to see them take on such a challenge.

“They know what the term ‘grunt’ means,” he said.  “They both worked as hard as grunts before they ever thought of the military.”

In many respects, by virtue of the years they had lived and the experiences they have had, both sisters have brought assets to the military. Amy is the oldest of three Burkowski children,  Amanda is the youngest and a brother, Scott, is in between. All three children did camping and target shooting while growing up, and they even learned to fire the old-fashioned muzzleloading rifles that their father built and sold. Amy and Scott were part of a state rifle team while in they were in high school, and she describes herself as an “avid hunter.” During deer season,  she has usually found time to climb into a tree stand and bag a buck. More recently, her shooting skills showed themselves at Camp Shelby, where she and two crew members in a humvee got perfect scores in a round of gunnery training. And while her choice to marry and have a family seems fairly traditional, establishing a moving business, driving 18-wheelers on long-haul moves and supervising all-male crews of movers was a departure from that pattern. She also has a two-year degree in horticulture, is the plant person at three farm and garden stores, and is eager to get something growing to break the dun-colored monotony of Spann. To that end, she’s requested a shipment of seeds from home. And when she gets home, she plans to resume studying for a business degree at Montevallo.

Michael and Barbara Burkowski say that Amanda’s life journey has been one of exploration, searching for her niche and taking some challenging, service-centered sidetrips along the way. The markers left on her path include sky diving, scuba diving, work at a concrete company and a golf course, a degree in kinesiology from the University of Montevallo, lifeguarding at the Lakeshore Foundation and working with its Lima Foxtrot camps serving wounded warriors, caring for Alzeimer’s  patients, even living with her maternal grandmother for several years so she could stay out of an assisted living center.  Prior to her deployment, she had a temporary job making government IDs at the Army National Guard Training Center at Fort McClellan. Growing up, her most serious injury was a broken arm she suffered while playing football with her brother, and she is not fazed by being one of the few women, or even the only one, in a group of men. That’s how it was in her platoon, she said at Camp Shelby, but she felt she had been winning acceptance among its mostly young members.

“The guys have accepted me pretty well,” she said. “I’m one … that will actually go out and bust my butt the best I can and fit in the best I can.”

There are times, she said, when some of the young guys, through their choice of words or conversation topic, have tried to “push it.” “But I’m old enough that I (can say) ‘Okay, ya’ll need to close it up, I don’t want to hear that,’ and they’ll stop. Otherwise, I let it go in one ear and out the other cause they’re 19 to 25 years old  and they’re being guys.”

Discussing the same subject, Milliron said a lot of her male counterparts  “are of the opinion that females don’t belong in the infantry and there’s some merit to that. But then there are a lot that are very supportive and the more that the group gets to know you, they change. You know, (when) you’re hanging in there and you’re carrying your own weight, you’re  doing what you’re supposed to do, then their (overall) opinion might not change, but their opinion of you changes. And so I have felt … the more and more we train together, more and more a part of the group.”

More than four years ago, though they were the daughters of a veteran, neither sister was part of any military group. Amy was active in Mary’s Girl Scout troop, and she and Amanda were involved in coordinating cookie sales. The cookies were stored at the National Guard armory in Calera, and the two had gotten some information there about the Guard, the financial incentives for joining, and found themselves interested. At first, Amy started pushing her husband to join. But at 41, Leif, was too old. At 36,  she was not. Two weeks later, she called her sister and told her she had signed up.

“Hey that’s cool,” is what Amanda recalls saying.

“So,” she says Amy replied, “are you gonna do it with me?”

“I was like, ‘Uhh, might.’”

A few months later, and after at least one lengthy chat with her father, Amanda’s “Uhh might” became “Where do I sign?” And now that both sisters find themselves with the same MOS (military occupational specialty) as motor transport operators, and in the same unit, they want, where possible, to look out for each other. The way Amanda talked about Amy while the two were at Camp Shelby, it seemed like a no-brainer.

“There’s a part of me that’s like, I’ll watch out for her cause she is older,” Amanda said. “I’m older, too, but I’m a little more physically able to do a lot of this stuff. She is physically able to do it but it hurts her more. So yeah, I’ll watch out for her, and I always will, even though I’m the baby.”

At Camp Spann, the two of them live in a wooden barracks building commonly known as a B-hut, and each has her own private room. And even though they do not do missions together, and may not see each other for stretches of time, knowing that they are there together “means a whole lot,” Amy Milliron said in her telephone interview. “I can actually get a hug and not be accused of anything.”

If she needed one on that day, however, she was going to have to wait. Amanda was outside the wire, on a four-day  mission. •

Editor’s note: In mid-September, the airing of an anti-Islamic film clip on YouTube was followed by the killing of the U.S. ambassador to Libya and sometimes violent demonstrations in other Islamic countries, including Afghanistan. The unrest prompted the 1st Battalion to take steps to protect its soldiers while continuing to carry out its mission. “We’re just being judicious with our movements,” a battalion officer said in an email.

3 Responses to “Sisters in Arms”

  1. Bonnie Payne Seevers says:

    Thank you Daniel, for this recognition and praise of our female soldiers. You have always been very respectful of women, and you are a very special person. Aunt Bonnie loves you, please take care and be careful.

  2. Amy and Amanda are my husband’s cousins. We see them at family reunions. Leon, my husband, and I ar extremely proud of these young women We just couldn’t be prouder. The article about them makes me want to be a better person. Go Amy and Amanda!

  3. Diane Vick says:

    Thank you so very much my Daniel Son, Lots of my friends have ask me about the female soldiers, and what they do. I will pass this site on to all of them. These ladies are so very blessed to have you in their company. You were raised to respect and protect women. I enjoyed reading the story of these sisters. This story about them will inspire others. It fills my heart with pride for our Alabama National Guard. Many prayers are and have been prayed for our sons and daughters safe journy and and safe trip home to their loved ones really soon.
    To these two sisters in arms, I give a big shout out…YOU GO GIRL!! WOW this momma is very impressed.
    God is with ya’ll always

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