Heart of a Warrior: Holly Katke
A journey from the battlefield to the playing field
We often try to put people in a box. Attach labels to them to try and define who they are.
Veteran. Mom. Researcher. College Graduate. Athlete.
True, Holly Katke is all of these things, but none define her. She doesn’t fit in any one box. She transcends them.
The one common thread throughout her life though has been her passion to serve those around her. To give all she can to the people and places that matter most. Katke joined the Navy after high school and had a decorated 14-year career as a chief petty officer. The combat medical corpsman was fluent in multiple languages, including Arabic. Being a woman and medic who spoke the language made Katke an invaluable asset, and she was recruited by special operations command for a joint operation with the Navy SEALs.
While on that mission in Iraq, she was shot in the head by an enemy sniper. It was just days before she was scheduled to fly home; it was also the day before her 30th birthday. The shot did not kill her, but resulted in a traumatic brain injury.
The injury has left Katke with partial blindness, aphasia and paralysis on the right side of her body. Aphasia usually occurs after a stroke or brain injury. “In my mind I know what I want to say, but the words aren’t exactly coming out of my mouth,” Katke explained. “Because the bullet, it stopped between my temporal and parietal lobe.”
While it may have slowed her down, it never stopped Katke.
“When I was introduced to Ability360, that was my first time outside of the VA looking around and seeing people like me of all injuries and disabilities,” she said. “It just motivated me.”
Even though she wanted to, Katke was unable to return to the military after her injury. So she took that energy and channeled it into her education, raising her daughter and her athletic training.
She now spends about three hours training twice a week. She goes from the bike to powerlifting to the rowing machine all within the course of one training session. Every once in a while, she’ll jump in general exercise classes as well.
Even on her “days off,” Kakte spends time working out in her home gym.
“I have my own bike and dumbbells, and everything else so that I can work out at home,” Katke said. “So I work out every single day except Sundays.”
As an athlete, Katke is extremely dedicated to her training.
A Long Road Back
Shortly after she was injured, Katke was flown back to the U.S. to a military hospital in Bethesda, Maryland. The bullet remained in her brain for three months before the swelling went down and doctors were able to remove it.
Shortly after that, Katke moved to the James A. Haley Veterans' Hospital Polytrauma Center in Tampa, Florida to rehab from the injury. Little did she know, the people she met there would remain supportive figures in her life even to this day.
“I was the only female on the floor [in Tampa],” Katke said. “And Cory [Remsburg] and I were the only ones with that sort of head injury where we had a traumatic brain injury.”
Remsburg was a member of the Army Rangers when he was injured by an improvised explosive device during his 10th tour of duty. While Remsburg was recovering, his stepmother Annie Remsburg was in Florida to take care of him.
“[Cory] was going through his rehab at the same time that Holly was there, and they became friends,” Annie Remsburg said. “In doing so, I got to know Holly, and my heart went out to her because Holly didn’t seem to have a lot of family support. She had family that was coming and going, but no one really seemed to stay there.”
Katke’s sister was one of the most constant familial figures during her recovery, but she was still active duty in the Army. She stayed for four months, but then the Army wanted her to go back, Katke remembered.
“So I didn’t have anyone, and Annie was there for me,” Katke said. “She would bring me food, and she would talk to me. She would get me out of the VA. She would take Cory. She would make lunch or breakfast. And she would say, ‘Why don’t you come and join us?’”
The journey was long and arduous, but Katke applied the same level of dedication to her recovery as she had in her years of military service. When she was well enough to be released, she went home to live with her uncle in Washington.
The transition back to the Pacific Northwest was not easy for her though. She lived in Sequim, Washington, a small town of a few thousand people surrounded on one side by the towering Olympic Mountains and the Puget Sound on the other. The secluded town on the Olympic Peninsula is about a three-hour drive from the closest VA hospital in Seattle.
“Holly didn’t really have a circle of friends [in Washington],” Annie Remsburg said. “She didn’t have a lot of exposure to other veterans. To people that she could relate to.”
There weren’t any Ubers or even taxi cabs in the town, Katke recalled.
The seclusion and dismal weather in Washington added to the depression that Katke said she struggled with.
Annie Remsburg remembers one particular call with Katke while she was still in Washington. “She said, ‘I’m just so depressed. I hate it here. It’s cold. It’s rainy. I just don’t like my life here at all.’”
Even though it would mean leaving her family and her home in Washington, Katke knew that she needed to make a change in her life. She wanted something better for her and her daughter. So Katke summoned all of her strength and courage and made the move to Gilbert, Arizona.
The Move to Arizona
The move to Arizona was by no means an easy one. There were moments of panic when they first moved, Katke recalled. “What am I doing here?” she remembered thinking. “I can’t live here by myself.”
But with the support from her friends, the Remsburgs, and her immense personal strength, Katke and her daughter settled into their new life in Arizona.
Katke is now connected with veterans groups. She volunteers regularly with her daughter. She has her own house, which was donated and renovated to be ADA compliant by the Carrington Charitable Foundation.
When she moved to Arizona in 2018, Katke also became very active training at the Ability360 Sports & Fitness Center.
Training has become an extremely important part of her life.
For Katke, working out is a private moment of escape; a way to help conquer the depression she said she still lives with. “When I work out, it’s about me,” she said. “Whether I’m in a good mood, a bad mood or a terrible mood, it gives me time to think and process.”
When she started working out, the whole idea was to be able to compete in the Warrior Games, Annie Remsburg said. The Warrior Games is an annual athletic competition organized by the Department of Defense for wounded, ill and injured service members from every branch of the military. In 2019, the games were to be held in Tampa, Florida.
Katke had been making plans for a summer trip to Florida for months, training nearly every day on her own and with the staff at Ability360. As the Warrior Games approached, she got a request for help from her friends and co-workers at Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium that she could not ignore.
“I got a phone call in January,” Katke said, “They said that they were short-handed, and a lot of their staff was moving out. And I’m just the type of person that if someone asked for my help, of course, I'm going to be there.”
Without a second thought, Katke decided she wasn’t going to compete in the Warrior Games this year. She went to Key West instead.
Life Beyond Sport
While she was getting her B.S. in Health Sciences and Environmental Science from Trident University, Katke worked at Mote as part of the Combat Wounded Veteran Challenge for coral restoration efforts in 2015. She stayed on after graduating and completed an internship with Mote.
Since then, Katke has completed her Master of Science Degree in Health Sciences and Public Health, also from Trident, and she has continued to volunteer with Mote.
This year, Katke worked alongside Alex Fine, a staff chemist in the ocean acidification program. Katke was part of a study that examined how sea urchins’ behavior changes with ocean acidification.
“A lot of people with the combat veterans program come down to Mote every year to go diving with our field team,” Fine said. “And since Holly is unable to dive with them, she’s just so enthusiastic about helping out in any way she can. And she’s found a great spot in the laboratory.”
Katke’s work ethic is one of the things that stands out most to Fine.
“She’s very vocal about contributing, and always has ideas and something to add to the conversation,” Fine said. “She was definitely a team player in getting everyone on the same page and keeping everyone positive. She was just overall a really great person to work with.”
It’s a work ethic that is evident in every part of Katke’s life.
Next year, Katke won’t have to choose between volunteering at Mote and competing in the Warrior Games. She’ll continue her research with ocean acidification over the summer and travel to San Antonio, Texas to compete in the 2020 Warrior Games in September.
Katke has certainly been through a lot in life, but she doesn’t let just one thing define who she is. She’s guided by her dedication to serving others.
Sarah Farrell is a Texas native, digital journalist, avid hiker and tennis fanatic. She’s currently working on her master’s in sports journalism at the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication at Arizona State University.
Read more by Sarah Farrell.