Aloha Ohana! My name is Mary Kerber, and I graduated from the University of Notre Dame with a degree in Russian in 2014. After commissioning, I served the next 5 years in the U.S. Air Force as an Airfield Operations Officer at Laughlin AFB, Texas, and as an instructor at Keesler AFB, Mississippi. I earned my Master’s in Environmental Policy and Management while serving, and separated from active duty in 2019. Since then I’ve been lucky enough to find a position merging my passion and teaching experience - training Marines in environmental compliance here in lovely Okinawa, Japan, where I’m blessed to live with my husband Drew and our new pup!
As the first recipient of the Capt. Reid K. Nishizuka Mentorship Award in 2014, I was honestly shocked. While the cadets I mentored, trained, and worked with had great attitudes and frequently won awards as a group and individually, there was also a running joke that my “mentees” were the ones we saw leaving the program. And it was true – several amazing cadets chose to leave our ROTC program under my watch. Would that be a result of “good mentorship” on my part? I had my doubts that I deserved an award with the name of a fallen brother on it.
A few (maybe more than a few) years have passed and I’ve made it through the uncertainty of being 22, the nervousness of being a butterbar, and built up the courage to tell everyone “I changed my mind – I’m separating from the Air Force.” You see, it took me that long to mentor myself. Much like letting those cadets know that choosing a different path would be OK for both the Air Force and for themselves, I had to convince myself to let go of my current plan for life and start building the one that was right for me. Maybe this is what Reid - this fellow Captain that I never got the chance to meet - already knew.
I still keep up with most of “my” cadets – both those who commissioned and those who did not – and seeing the people they have become brings me SO MUCH JOY! They pursue a wide range of interests, devote themselves to higher causes, and find beauty in the simple things. Would they all have been good officers? I know they would have been, but that path was theirs alone to choose. Most importantly, they are exceptional human beings – in or out of the Air Force.
Mentorship in the context of the military can seem somewhat narrow-minded, but this award celebrates the type of guidance that helps people get to where they are meant to be, rather than where an organization intends for them to go. Seeing the potential in each individual is the spirit of Reid that the Nishizuka family keeps alive with every new commissioning class, and I’m grateful to learn even one lesson from him all these years later. Mahalo Reid for reminding us all that there is a place and a path for each of us, and not one of them looks the same.