HARKER HEIGHTS – Retired Staff Sgt. 1st Class Ken Cates grew up as a military kid and always wanted to be a soldier himself when he grew up, but what turned out to be a very successful 27 year career didn’t exactly start as it could have imagine it.
âMy plan has always been military,â said Cates, a native of New Mexico who has lived in Harker Heights for seven years. âI just didn’t know which branch.
“For me, one of the opportunities was to take a pilot program, but they closed the door after going through the whole process at MEPS (military entry processing stations), so instead of doing active duty for something they no longer had available, I chose to go a bit with the Reserves, then I got early release and ended up working for the Coast Guard for four years.
âAfter I left the Coast Guard, I tried the civilian sector for six, seven months, and it was just terrible. I was back in New Mexico and there was no work.
Deciding to re-enlist, this time with the U.S. military, Cates traveled to Fort Sill, Oklahoma, where he trained as a Multiple Launch Rocket System (MLRS) specialist. The MLRS is an armored self-propelled rocket launcher with a three-man crew mounted on a Bradley Fighting Vehicle chassis.
âWe called it Fort Silk,â Cates said with a laugh. âAll of us (members of the previous service) were in a different barracks, but we trained with the first trainees and they were given the opportunity to phone; they were allowed to use the dry cleaners and all that dirt after the second week. We never had that.
From there, Cates went to Bamberg, Germany for three years, then returned to the United States to “set up” an MLRS Field Artillery Battalion in 1997. The remainder of his career included two military missions. fight in Iraq with the 4th Brigade of the 1st Cavalry Division. , and a transfer to the New Mexico Army National Guard (family issues forced him out of active service) where he worked with an anti-drug unit of the RAID (Reconnaissance Air Interdiction Detachment) to fight against the flow of illegal drugs crossing the border with Mexico.
Then he traveled to Vermont to work as a National Guard recruiter (2002-06), returned to Fort Hood, and eventually retired in 2015.
Now 51, the father of seven daughters and grandfather of five intended to use his skills and military leadership experience to land a well-paying job abroad, but then he found an opportunity that provided more than just a paycheck.
âI looked for a job for about six months,â Cates said. âMe and the family were actually on that last point where we had to decide, and I was just about to grab a job opportunity in Arizona. My two youngest daughters were just starting high school (in Harker Heights) and we were really hoping to stay here so they end up with their friends and don’t do that bouncing around.
âThen one of my deacons (at church) asked me if I had ever considered working in the nonprofit sector. Jokingly I said, nonprofit? There is no money there. But I applied, they interviewed me two days later, and they called me at midnight that night and said, “It’s not official yet, but we’re going to offer you the job. .
âI accepted, and we thought at first we were going to give him a few years, finish high school with the girls, and then leave, but this first year has been so satisfying. To be able to see the impact that we are making right here in central Texas.
âYou can’t put a price on it. So I decided that I no longer needed to go looking for the six-figure jobs. The satisfaction and the need of the community to be satisfied has been such a blessing.
The position he accepted was for Fort Hood Area Habitat for Humanity, where he is CEO of the group that has been building low cost homes for low and moderate income families since 1994.
Under his leadership over the past six years, 32 houses have been built in the area. In the six years before his arrival, Cates said, the organization built a total of four homes.
âWe build as needed – not just because someone wants a house – and we don’t donate the houses. They still have to pay a mortgage. But the cost is greatly reduced as we mostly use volunteers and donated materials. We are not here to make a profit.
âMore recently, a house we completed in Copperas Cove costs $ 145,000, but the mortgage is only $ 95,000. Their overall monthly payment is therefore less than $ 600 per month. “
In 2019, Cates was named a ‘Hometown Hero’ by the Harker Heights Chamber of Commerce, and last month he was honored along with nine other area veterans with a Veterans Congress Commendation presented by the US Representative John Carter, R-Rock, for service. to the community after their military career.
The price, he said, was both unexpected and humiliating.
âTo say the least,â he said. âI personally know three of the other people who were up there with me and what they’ve accomplished over the years, and being a part of that group of other veterans was quite an honor.
âOne of the other best experiences of the day was when Congressman Carter was first introduced after the Pledge of Allegiance he mentioned two children who were there who were standing and had their hands on. their hearts, reciting the oath.
âHe said, ‘Our nation is not going to hell as fast as I thought it would be.’
âThese two boys are my grandsons.
Thinking back to his military career, Cates said he was âabsolutelyâ happy to have served. If he had to do it again, he might take a different step here and there, but overall he has no major regrets.
âSometimes I think of things that I could have done to advance my careerâ¦ I took a real reduction in grade to reclassify myself, because the only way for me to get out of recruiting was to take a reduction in rank. . It was one of those things that you sort of go over and say, âWas that a smart choice? But at the same time, I couldn’t have been where I am today.
âIt was incredible, for sure. I have met extraordinary men and women, of all ranks and fields, from multiple branches. I have had experiences that will never be forgotten.
âI always tell people who enlist, no matter what MOS or professional skill you choose, to do your best. And always look for additional skills. Always go after that extra special duty. This is where you get the experiences that can make you successful and target you (for second career opportunities) when you step out – whether it’s four years, 10 years, 27 years.
âIt’s an incredible opportunity. Always, always, always pay attention to each other’s leadership roles and how they lead. Then you decide if you want to be that type of leader or if you want to mix everything up to be the best leader.
âIf the military isn’t for you, there’s no reason you can’t serve yet. Go to the fire department and become a volunteer firefighter or EMT. Read books in the library. Serve somewhere.
âI live by a simple code: honor God, love family, serve the community and the country. You can’t go wrong with this.