By Staff Sgt. Christopher Calvert
1st Cavalry Division Public Affairs
Staff Sgt. Leah Kilpatrick is a 13-year Army veteran and public affairs sergeant, who has come to appreciate the Army as an extension of her own Family, especially after the death of her husband in 2014.
Staff Sgt. Leah Kilpatrick, noncommissioned officer in charge of 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, places a kiss on her husband’s tombstone at Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Virginia, July 26, 2015. The Detroit native said the response of her brothers and sisters in arms after the death of her husband renewed her faith in the Army family.
Leah and Sam Kilpatrick pose together for a photo during the Defense Information School’s holiday party at Fort Meade, Maryland, Dec. 18, 2009.
Many Soldiers are unsung heroes who complete their day-to-day missions not seeking praise, and even fewer receive the admiration they often deserve.
But only one Trooper can say she is the best in the Army at breaking that mold.
Staff Sgt. Leah Kilpatrick, the public affairs noncommissioned officer in charge of the 3rd Armored Brigade Combat Team, 1st Cavalry Division, here was recently named the Paul D. Savanuck Military Print Journalist of the Year during the 2015 Major General Keith L. Ware Journalism Competition.
“What’s more fun and rewarding than telling the Soldier’s story?” said the Detroit native. “It’s my job to tell the stories of the Soldiers of Greywolf. That’s the reason I won; I give the credit to the Soldiers - I was just sharing their experiences.”
Kilpatrick was no stranger to the military, growing up in a household with a mother and father who served in the Air Force and an older sister who enlisted in the Army as a petroleum supply specialist.
So it should come as no surprise she found herself treading into familiar military waters in 2003 after attending college and finding herself strapped for cash, she said.
“Service was a rite of passage,” Kilpatrick said. “I initially joined for pragmatic reasons when I ran out of financial aid and was unable to finish school at the University of Michigan. When I decided to join, I figured I’m going to do this on my terms and began looking for what the Army had that would allow me to write.”
Kilpatrick developed an interest in writing – specifically creative writing – since the age of 12 and would often write poetry and short stories in her spare time.
It was during this time she began to fine tune her craft, one that would eventually help her become the best print journalist in the Army – and potentially the Department of Defense – as the competition judges are slated to announce the DoD winners April 15.
“I never was in love with the idea of journalism. It had too many rules, too much structure,” she said. “I enjoyed poetic license, being able to do what I want and call it poetic license.”
The avid poet was willing to give journalism a try in order to serve and keep a pen in her hand, she said.
“Now, I get to write, which is what I do, and the photography is a bonus,” she said. “I fell in love with it.”
During her training at the Defense Information School at Fort Meade, Maryland, she said she remembered thinking how she would love to return to the schoolhouse one day, planting the seed for her most rewarding experience thus far in the military – instructing.
After redeploying from Balad, Iraq in 2005 where she was the assistant editor of the installation newsletter, Kilpatrick jumped at the opportunity to become a Basic Public Affairs Specialist Course instructor, where she would teach the journalism block of instruction.
“Teaching was the most fun I’ve had my entire Army career,” she said. “A lot of people spend their lives trying to figure out what they want to do. I had that eureka moment when I was on platform teaching. Whether in front of 12 students or 48, I always knew this is where I belong.”
Kilpatrick would go on to coach, train and mentor three of the last four DA-level print journalists of the year: Staff Sgt. Ken Scar; Staff Sgt. Marcus Fichtl; and Staff Sgt. Lindsey Kibler, her first Soldier after becoming an NCO.
“Most of my former students are my friends on Facebook now,” she said. “Every time they place or they win [during the competition], I say ‘Yes! We got one.’ It’s a good feeling. It’s like watching your babies grow up.”
Master Sgt. Angela McKinzie, PA NCOIC, 1st Cav. Div., and Kilpatrick’s former supervisor, became friends with Kilpatrick while they were at DINFOS and had always admired her professionalism.
“We met at DINFOS, where we were both on platform teaching,” said McKinzie. “She was a consummate professional, always doing whatever it takes to mentor and guide her students. When she later came to my shop, I was so happy to have her on the team because I knew the caliber of Soldier she is, and how authentic and passionate she is as a person. She brings out the best in everyone around her.”
After instructing at DINFOS, she would move on to Fort Bragg, North Carolina, and then to Yongsan, South Korea, before finally making her way to “The Great Place,” where she served as the First Team’s command information chief/editor.
Then, tragedy struck.
On October 23, 2014, her husband of five years and best friend of 10, Sam, tragically passed away, leaving behind a baby daughter, a toddler son and a grieving widow.
“I felt numbness,” she said, of her initial reaction to the terrible news. “Then it was what all do I need to do, and I was more productive than I’ve ever been. I thought, ‘I need to go here and do this and that,’ constantly - I was on autopilot. I fed our kids on schedule every day, but lost 30 pounds, because I forgot to eat myself. I couldn’t taste anything anyway.”
However, Kilpatrick soon realized that by continuing to support her two children and by putting her best foot forward every time she dons her uniform, she is simultaneously shedding positive light on her late husband’s legacy.
“When my kids need me, they need me; I push the emotions back,” she said. “It’s about self-preservation now – if you don’t swim, you’ll sink. Failure is not an option. My husband left me with the huge responsibility to raise our children. I got so much joy out of making him proud of me. In a lot of ways, I’m still trying to make him proud of me. I like to think of my angel in the clouds looking down and saying, ‘You got this, honey.’”
McKinzie was side-by-side Kilpatrick during her time of need as her care team manager.
“Leah is a woman who carries herself with a humble, quiet grace yet her presence is powerful,” said McKinize. “Seeing such a vibrant soul go through this tragedy broke my heart, but the support from friends of past and present allowed me to see that she wasn’t going alone. Whether it was making meals for her or sending greetings from afar, I am truly humbled by the generosity of those who helped Leah. I cannot say she is okay -- I don’t know if she will ever be okay. What I do know is that she is a warrior and lives life one day at a time.”
Now, Kilpatrick finds her daily drive to accomplish the mission by continuing to bring out the best in her peers and by telling the Greywolf story.
“This past year in 3rd Brigade, I’ve had the chance to meet some awesome Soldiers, who had great stories to tell,” she said. “My advice to all of them is to keep shooting for the stars. For me, I’m not going to stop trying to be great just because of this milestone in my career. In all you do, strive for greatness.”