Hometown: Palmer, Alaska
Fun Fact: Named her favorite hunting rifle “Shelley”
Amanda Marr is as funny as she is fierce. She looks like she could probably beat you arm wrestling or smoke you in a foot race. She laughs easily and she tells good stories (wait until you hear about her latest grizzly bear hunt). But there’s a steely edge to her. She exudes determination. She’s a U.S. Army veteran, a student, a wife, a mother, a fallen soldier widow and a born-and-raised Alaska girl.
Amanda is currently powering her way toward a nursing degree at UAA after serving as an Army medic and weathering some rough road. This isn’t her first time in a nursing program. She left Alaska after high school to study nursing in Arizona where she met and married her late husband, Justin Gallegos. When he joined the Army, they pulled up stakes to move to his assigned base in Georgia, leaving Amanda one semester shy of her degree. With the added responsibility of a little guy—they welcomed their son, MacAidan, in 2003—she started over again in a new nursing program at Columbus Technical College and again had the finish line in her sights when Justin was injured during a deployment to Iraq. He returned home in need of care, so she suspended her studies to look after him.
Once Justin was well enough to be deployed again, Amanda joined the Army herself.
“It was ultimately because when I asked him, ‘What brought you home? What kept you alive?’ He said, ‘I had really good medics and I had really good nurses.’” She laughs when she recalls his response to her enlistment as a medic: “He was furiously offended that I had done that.” Why would she want to join him in being shot at and in danger? But there was no changing her mind.
Amanda became a Mike 6—a combat medic licensed professional nurse (LPN). She worked in intensive care units, in burn units, in labor and delivery, eventually becoming the ward master of Labor and Delivery at a hospital in Fort Carson, Colo. “As an LPN for the Army, you can do anything that your supervisor allows you to do or encourages you to do. If it’s a lifesaving measure, it’s what you do,” she says, explaining that the military scope of practice is intentionally flexible and broad.
Halfway through her own military contract, Amanda received the news that Sgt. Justin Gallegos had been killed in action. On Oct. 3, 2009, Sgt. Gallegos fell in a firefight with insurgents at his outpost in Afghanistan along with seven other soldiers. Their story is told, in part, by Jake Tapper, ABC’s senior White House correspondent, in his new book, “The Outpost: An Untold Story of American Valor.”
“The Army gave me the opportunity to leave early, but I opted to finish out my contract,” she says. “I retreated home to Alaska.” She completed her contract with the U.S. Army Reserves in May and decided to finally and officially make her nursing degree happen at UAA. Despite her years of experience as an Army LPN, she finds herself swallowing her pride and stepping back in line as a novice nurse for education purposes. She says, “Here I am, starting over again. I told myself, ‘It is what it is. Suck it up.’ I’m doing it.”
Amanda says, “My ultimate goal is to be a nurse practitioner in the Native/rural communities in Alaska.” She is also an Alaska Native Studies minor.
A little help from (and for) her friends
It was in the spring 2012 semester that Amanda first returned to campus as a student. She’s made time to lend a hand as a club officer for Student Veterans of UAA, too.
“Ultimately, to have been an active duty soldier, and then in the Reserves, a fallen soldier widow and now a current active duty military spouse, the student part, oddly, ends up being the least of my worries,” she says. Being part of the club isn’t about resume padding for any of the members. Amanda and her colleagues say that they have all weathered their own challenges and are ready to help other students.
While there are challenges and hurdles to navigating both the Veterans Affairs (VA) and UAA systems concurrently as a veteran student using the GI Bill, she is happy to have the assistance of John Johnson, UAA’s military and veteran community services assistant with the Office of Student Affairs. “When John came into the picture, he became my saving grace, my sanity,” she says.
“If you try to call the VA, there’s only one phone number—for anyone, for a professor to call, for me to call, for a doctor to call. So, you call and if it is too busy, it won’t even let you go on hold, it will literally say, ‘We are too busy. Please call back another time,’” Amanda explains. So to have someone knowledgeable like John (who is also an active duty veteran with the Reserves) working with her and other students who are using military and veteran benefits, she says, has been a relief and a blessing. “He knows that lane. It’s just so important for him to exist.”
On the home front, Amanda remarried in March and she and her husband, Jeremy Marr, rear detachment command sergeant major, 425th Brigade, keep busy with their blended family of three kids, plus a Great Dane and a Belgian Malinois. Amanda and Jeremy also keep busy one-upping each other with the adventurous birthday gifts.
The bear hunt
“Last year, I took him on a halibut charter for his birthday,” Amanda says. This year, they were after bigger game. With a big smile, she says, “I got a brown bear. It’s what I wanted to do for my birthday. So my husband took me and it was the scariest thing I have ever done in my life. Terrifying! We had to blood track it, too.”
Although she’d fired off a good, clean shot, the bear took them on a bit of a walk and that’s when the doubt set in. “I’m thinking, ‘What if I just gave it a pedicure?! What if I only pierced its ear?! I don’t know, maybe I’m not a good marksman.’ Because when you’re tracking a brown bear through 7-foot-tall grass, suddenly you question your abilities as a marksman,” she says.
“So there we were meandering through the grass, my husband points out a bear den and I’m thinking, ‘This is so stupid!’ I had to tell my left and right feet to move,” she says with a laugh. “At one point my husband was getting a little far ahead of me and I was convincing myself I was just maintaining some distance, and then I realized I was almost walking backward. I had to pep talk my feet in my mind to move forward.” After the longest 80 yards of her life, they found the downed bear and were able to dress it out and get the heck out of deep woods bear country.
Amanda’s conclusion? “Best birthday present ever!” But since both she and her husband are certified one-uppers, how do they plan to top it? “We’re thinking African safari,” she says. And though she’s laughing, she’s not kidding.
They’re enjoying introducing their kids to all their favorite outdoor activities—their 11-year-old daughter just caught her first king salmon this year and MacAidan, now 8 years old, just went on his first caribou hunt. “Well, he didn’t actually hunt. But he learned the art of being quiet,” Amanda says. A lesson that was seriously in jeopardy when he got the hiccups. True story. Their 3-year-old is still a little too young for the quiet lessons, but they have big plans for her.
In addition to her commitments as a UAA student, wife and mother, Amanda is also involved with various military support networks, including the surviving spouse support group. She’s made a point of visiting her late husband’s grave in Tucson with the kids.
“To honor his memory we just try to live a life that suggests someone should die for it. If your life isn’t worth someone laying down their own life to maintain the freedoms you’re utilizing, then you should probably rethink that,” she says. “Try being the kind of person that someone would want to fall for.”
Their goal as a family is to settle permanently in Alaska once Jeremy has completed his service.
“Alaska is home,” Amanda says, “That will never change.” And she’d also like to finally bag a moose. Despite a lifetime spent in Alaska, that’s still on her bucket list. We’re not sure UAA can help her with that goal, but we’re happy she’s here to complete her nursing degree. Or possibly degrees? Rural Alaska could sure use another fearless bear-hunting primary care provider.