Kathy Ellis describes retiring from the U.S. Army Reserve as a bride would describe her post-wedding.
“I put away my uniform like a bride puts away her wedding dress,” Ellis said. “I actually went to the cleaners and said, ‘I want to preserve my Army uniform.’”
After 30 years of service, Ellis wanted it boxed up as a rememberance.
Ellis was born Aug. 11, 1948, to Sophie and Adam Kerko in Buffalo, New York.
Both of her parents were first-generation immigrants who spoke Polish, yet she and her siblings weren’t taught that because, “Back then, you forgot everything about where you came from.”
Her parents grew up “dirt poor,” and they had to drop out of school early on.
“It was real poverty,” she said. “We didn’t have much money, either; but I never thought we were poor.”
Ellis was the youngest of four and, while she said she was probably the “brattiest” and the “most spoiled,” her mother often called her the “black sheep.”
“Growing up, I just had a different outlook on life,” she said. “I was always challenging, always questioning.”
Ellis spent her teen years challenging herself, determined not to go to public high school and, instead, go to a private Catholic school.
Because her family couldn’t afford it, her mother arranged for her to clean classrooms to pay for half of her tuition, but Ellis was a natural-born leader and convinced her friends to help her.
The nuns were patient with Ellis, and although she often got into trouble, she attributes her success to them.
“They encouraged us that we all didn’t have to be homemakers, which was a different perspective at that time,” she said. “They told us everything was possible.”
When she graduated, Ellis was then determined to go to college, but “back then, the boys were educated — the girls were not.”
After taking a year off to raise enough money to buy a car, Ellis began medical assistant classes at Erie Technical Institute.
She didn’t do too well her first year because she was “too busy not taking life seriously,” but “shaped up” her second year and graduated with an associate’s degree.
It wasn’t until years later that Ellis overheard her mother talking to a neighbor, bragging about how Ellis had finished college and telling her how proud she was of Ellis.
“She never said it to me,” Ellis said.
Ellis didn’t stop there, though, and a few years later decided to double-major in political science and history at the University at Buffalo.
She wanted to be a lawyer, and even took the law school aptitude test before her mother died in 1977, leaving Ellis with some money.
Ellis had lived with her parents until she was 27, so she decided to use the money to purchase a condo.
Her mother had helped her acquire all of her previous loans, and now that she was gone, the bank was telling Ellis she was “borderline.”
It was her financial situation that ultimately led her to the Army Reserve.
Ellis was working as a surgical assistant for a periodontist at the time, and learned about a “civilian acquired skills program” that would allow her to join the Reserve and only have to complete a two-week boot camp, so she joined on May 20, 1978.
Her commander was able to write a letter to the bank, explaining her additional income, which allowed her to purchase the condo.
Before she enlisted, her recruiter had told her not to join the dental unit because she would never be promoted to officer, but she thought “recruiters always lied” and chose not to believe him.
It didn’t take long for Ellis to realize she should’ve listened to him, and a year later transitioned to the civil affairs unit as a truck driver.
During this time, Ellis had quit her full-time job to continue her studies, and was working toward her master’s in business administration.
When the Cuban refugee crisis arose in 1980, Ellis had to drop her classes to travel to Fort Indiantown Gap, Pennsylvania, for two weeks to assist in processing the influx of people.
“That’s where you got to see the action, really,” she said. “There were a lot of poor families, infirm, mentally ill.”
When she returned, she continued working toward becoming an officer and worked various jobs in the civil affairs company, eventually deciding she wanted to become a finance officer.
“I had to learn quickly, and I did,” she said. “I read, I asked questions and I figured it out.”
Ellis was sent to Germany three times over the years for two-week exercises with the German army.
On one trip, she was even able to meet the mayor of Cologne, who “was telling me my place was in the home.”
“When you’re an officer, you have to be a diplomat, so you just take it,” Ellis said. “They didn’t have women in their military then, just doctors … but they treated me always with respect.”
Ellis remained a finance officer until 1987, when her family moved to Ohio for her husband’s work.
Because she wanted to remain in finance, she was sent to Fort Benjamin Harrison, Indiana, for schooling.
“I was pregnant at the time, and they weren’t going to let me finish my advance course because I had to go to the field,” Ellis said.
Although she was able to convince the chaplain and doctor to give approval, the director of the school still didn’t want to allow it.
“Women came across in covered wagons and had babies and went back to work — that was my argument,” she said, chuckling.
She was eventually given the OK, allowing her to graduate and return to the Defense Supply Center in Columbus, Ohio, where she continued as a finance officer.
“It was no longer one drill weekend a month,” she said. “I was gone a lot. I did a lot of traveling.”
Just a year later, she was asked to become headquarters commandant, which led to a promotion to major in 1989.
“That’s when my lack of training comes through,” Ellis said. “I had never taken formation, never learned how to salute properly.”
A few months later, the Ellis family moved first to Denver, then to Sacramento a year later.
“I always stayed behind to sell the house, make sure the kids finished school and figure things out,” she said. “When I did leave, I remember all the enlisted circling my car and saluting me, and it made me cry. … So now we’re in Sacramento and again same thing happens — I don’t have a unit.”
Every move meant Ellis would have to find a new position to continue receiving enough active “points” to work toward retirement.
“Somebody upstairs was looking out for me because each time I found a unit, it was basically luck,” she said.
Her next position arose due to her experience with civil affairs, as it’s considered a special operations division.
“You talk about ‘a man’s world,’ my first briefing at battalion headquarters, I walk in and it’s all guys, and they’re not even looking at me,” she said.
Ellis took on various positions in Sacramento, including acting commander and cultural affairs officer, before finally moving to Stevenson Ranch.
“This is the longest (time we’ve lived in a house),” she said.
It was then that Ellis found an opening for assistant chief of staff, working in Los Angeles at the only Reserve Corps command that supported active duty.
“It’s high-level personnel, now you’re in charge of thousands of soldiers in all these units,” she said.
Ellis became a colonel in 2001 and transitioned from there to comptroller, where she worked to develop $60 million Army budgets.
At the same time, she was sent to the U.S. Army War College for a two-year program to acquire a master of science in strategic studies.
“You go in the summer for two weeks, then again the following summer for two weeks, but you’re constantly writing papers on strategy and war — it was very hard,” Ellis said. “But it was an honor.”
Throughout her time in the Reserve, Ellis had taken various part-time civilian jobs, but in 2002, she had also begun a full-time position as an investigator for U.S. Investigation Services, or USIS, a private company contracted to investigate security clearances, so she could send her son to a Catholic high school.
“They didn’t like the Army, the Army didn’t like the job, and they were constantly clashing with each other,” she said.
Back in 1995, Ellis had told a colonel that she wanted to be the commander, “and someday I will be.” This dream came true in December 2003, when she was chosen as the group commander of the Army Reserve Center in Bell, California.
“There was no sleep anymore — during wartime, you get burnt out,” she said.
For the last five months of her Reserve career, Ellis took a leave of absence from work after she was given active duty orders back to L.A. to take over a full-time chief of staff position until she retired Aug. 30, 2008.
“Long hours, but I didn’t have two jobs anymore, so I could focus,” she said. “That’s how I ended my career … Sept. 1, 2008, I was (a soldier) no more, and it happens just like that. One day, you’re giving orders — the next, you’re gone.”
Throughout her career, Ellis received various awards, including a Meritorious Service Medal, Army Commendation Medal and Global War on Terrorism Service Medal.
A few years after Ellis retired from USIS in 2013, she decided she wanted to get a culinary degree at College of the Canyons. However, “The Army told me I wasn’t considered a veteran,” she said, and therefore she didn’t qualify for education benefits.
Ellis then had to contact the Department of Defense to prove she had done enough active duty days to be considered a veteran.
“Those are the kind of arguments I had to go through my whole career,” Ellis said.
Regardless of the challenges she faced, not only being a reservist, but also being a woman, Ellis still said, “To me, my first love was the military.”