In September 2005, Mary Kohler, a 1970 graduate of St. Francis Academy, did something she would never have thought was possible when she was in high school. At the age of 53, Kohler was the first civilian protocol officer deployed to Iraq at the start of what would become America’s longest war. She spent six years in the war zone. “Some of the soldiers gave me a hard time. They wondered what a 53-year-old woman was doing there. I had to carry my own equipment, like everyone else. When I first got there, there were 25 women and only one tent for all of us to share. Those cots were so close together.”
Kohler was the chief of protocol when she deployed to Iraq with the 101st Airborne Division (Air Assault). “My office arranged all visits from foreign dignitaries, and any ceremonies or social functions. The 101st became famous during World War II. After World War II they developed the air assault concept which was being duplicated by many other armies. Because of these factors, we had a couple hundred visits a year from the chiefs of other armies, presidents,and high-ranking officials of other countries.”
After being in Tikrit, Iraq for nine months, Kohler moved to Baghdad to work for the Corps of Engineers. In February 2007, she was requested to work for the Commander of the Forces in Iraq, General David Petraeus, a four-star general, during the surge and one of the worst periods during the Iraq conflict. They were bombed an average of 32 times a day while she was at the Embassy for about six weeks. “We were implementing counterinsurgency in Iraq which was a new concept. It was no longer about killing the enemy but getting the local population on your side to help in driving the enemy out. Besides providing security, we built schools, hospitals and provided other humanitarian support. Our soldiers were trained to befriend the local population so they could render assistance in their mission. The Iraqi people were under a dictator for so long, that they needed help governing for themselves. We had to teach them how to run a democracy. We had such a great team. They actually turned the tide of the war. I remember when the Iraqis stopped bombing us and things started getting better.”
Throughout her time in Iraq, Kohler became familiar with the Muslim religion. “We learned about their culture and how to interact with them. They are family oriented. In America, we are direct and get right to the questions. In Iraq, it might take two or three meetings to really get to the meat of what you want. They are big on social etiquette, like wanting to know about one’s family.”
In 2009, she was going to come home and work in Washington, D.C., but instead she went and served under General Stan McChrystal, a four-star general and commander of NATO’s International Security Assistance Force. McChrystal was sent in to fix the issues in Afghanistan, but he was fired by President Obama in 2010 after comments of his staff appeared in an article from Rolling Stones magazine. Kohler then went back to work for General Petraeus who took over for General McChrystal.
“Throughout my time, I got to see their tremendous leadership styles. I watched four-star generals lead the troops. I saw how they solved issues when they arose. General Petraeus believed in being honest. There was a time when the Navy Seals went in to rescue a British hostage, and the hostage was killed by accident. General Petraeus had me get the Prime Minister of England on the phone, and he was very honest with him. This was a lesson in leadership for me.”
Kohler credits her childhood with getting to the position she is today. “If I didn’t have as hard of a time as a kid, I would not be where am today. It instilled resilience in me and that has sustained me throughout my life. I did not have a great home life. Both of my parents died when I was young, and out of the goodness of her heart, Jean Lennon took me in. She was my surrogate; she took me in to live with her family without giving it a second thought.
“I can’t say enough of what St. Francis Academy has meant to me. I received a great education and good, moral values. When I was in Iraq, General Petraeus commented that I was a good writer. I knew it was because of St. Francis. High school taught me how to write and to love reading. It was that love of reading that kept me from going crazy in the war zone.”