Amy Carpenter of Allerton—a small town in southern Iowa of less than 1,000 people built around its railway yards—can boast she has served overseas for the Air Force under three different presidents.
It has been a long journey home more than once.
This February, Carpenter came full circle. After moving into the house next door to Susan Niday Moore on the first day of her eighth-grade year, over two decades later, this lifelong friend helped arrange a surprise trip home for Carpenter from Kuwait.
Amy and husband Brett have two sons, Dane, six years old, and Knox, four years old.
“With her stomach in knots, Master Sergeant Amy Carpenter begins her trek down the hallway at Wayne Community Elementary School,” said KCCI’s Laura Terrell in a news segment that aired Feb. 4. “The 30-second walk is the last step in pulling off the biggest surprise of her life.”
“Mommy!” Knox yelled as he ran into her arms.
“Hey buddy!” Carpenter replied, kneeling to accept her youngest son’s embrace.
“Mom, are you done with work?” Dane asked, as those gathered in the hallway laughed.
“Remember how you told me to tell my boss, ‘Hey, can you come home on the third or the fourth [of Feb.]?’ And I did. And I surprised you.”
“Carpenter’s dedication to the 132nd Fighter Wing is the definition of a mother’s sacrifice,” Terrell continued in the news segment. “A deployment to Kuwait forced her to be away from her boys for more than 200 days.”
The story begins long ago in the small town of Ipava, Illinois—around 50 miles east of Keokuk—with Carpenter’s father, Barney Ogden, teaching his four-year-old daughter to dribble in their driveway. She became a basketball prodigy.
“By the time I was five, I was doing the three-man weave in the parking lot,” Carpenter said. “I was doing spider dribbles. He worked with me every single day.”
It was not until 1996 that the family moved to Wayne County.
Under former Lady Falcons head coach Stan Rupe, Wayne fielded a good team each of Carpenter’s four years in high school. Her junior season, Wayne was ranked number three and made it to the Iowa State Basketball Tournament.
The problem was, Carpenter missed it.
Her first game back after Christmas break, she tore the ACL in her knee. Her neighbor and best friend, Moore, took Carpenter’s place in the starting lineup.
“It was a dream of mine to make it to State. I didn’t get to play, but my team did, so that was great.”
“We had a lot of fun,” Moore added.
Wayne suited up in Des Moines without arguably their best player.
“I would never say that,” Carpenter explained. “We were fortunate enough to play with two girls who were six feet tall, Heidi Carpenter and Becky Green. Rachel Dodson was our point guard—a great ballhandler and defensive player. Shawna Beckner had a big wingspan, and most of the time she’d guard the best girl on the other team.”
The following season, Wayne won the Pride of Iowa Conference, but Carpenter tore the ACL in her other knee, again in January. She played less than 20 games her junior and senior years.
Those were fantastic seasons for women’s sports teams in Wayne County, as Mormon Trail’s basketball squad made it to the State Tournament the following year after the Lady Falcons’ trip.
Moore and Carpenter graduated with Wayne’s Class of 2001.
Despite the devastating injuries, Carpenter signed a full-ride scholarship to play basketball for State Fair Community College in Sedalia, Mo.
“After tearing both my ACLs, I couldn’t play basketball the way I wanted anymore,” Carpenter said. “I lost my motivation to be in school. I told my dad I wasn’t going back.”
“He asked, ‘Well, what are you going to do with the rest of your life? You’re going to have bills to pay.’
“I suggested the military to him. I wanted to join the Navy, because that was the branch he was in, but he really pushed me toward the Air Force. He said, ‘When you get home, we’ll talk to the recruiter.’”
“I can’t say a whole lot about what I did over there,” Carpenter said of her three deployments. She is still not allowed to describe the details of her experience during the first few years of the Iraq War. If a serviceman has PTSD, he is allowed to speak with a therapist about his experience, but often not to the press, or even his family.
On Dec. 28 of 2002, Carpenter signed up for military service.
From February to September of 2004, the Air Force deployed her to Iraq.
“I was in basic training when the war kicked off,” Carpenter said. “I was a 21-year-old kid. The day they assigned me to my first duty station in New Mexico, they had the orders to Iraq ready, and I left within a couple of weeks. So, my first day of actual work ever was in Iraq.
“Before I left, my father told me to take care of myself, and take care of my troops. That’s all he could say.
“I called home whenever I got the chance. We had desktop computers with email, so that’d get home faster than a letter, but we still relied on letters quite a bit.
“I went over there, and I didn’t know anything. We did convoys and off-base patrols with soft-shelled Humvees. At that time, the war hadn’t been going on too long, and funding was still an issue.”
This was one of the central controversies of the government’s handling of Iraq. Soldiers were forced to use improvised armor to protect themselves.
In December of 2003, Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez wrote a memo stating his belief U.S. forces were underprepared and underfunded for sustained combat.
This error cost American lives. The young woman from southern Iowa was one of those troops in the line of fire.
“We were just awaiting armored Humvees,” Carpenter said. “So, that was crazy, but at the time I didn’t know any different. Looking back, I think, ‘Holy cow.’
“Now, you can’t do any type of convoy patrolling without a M-ATV of some sort.”
A M-ATV is a mobile, highly armored vehicle designed for warzones. It is Mine Resistant Ambush Protected, or MRAP.
Carpenter was stationed in the ancient city of Kerkuk in the north of the country, in what was once Sumeria, one of the most pivotal and influential civilizations in the world.
In Iraq, the soldiers and airmen were more prepared than the politicians who sent them overseas.
“We were actually in a combat zone, so we were close,” Carpenter said. “Your comradery—everybody’s got everybody’s back. You make sure everything is okay, that it’s good to go, because you’ve got to have your head in the game all the time.”
In those days, her father worked as an electrician for the milk plant in Allerton, DairiConcepts. Jane still owns and operates Hair LTD.
“I’ve always been very close to my parents,” said Carpenter.
From November of 2009 to May of 2010, she was deployed to Qatar.
“We were there as a hub. We had a real busy airfield. Lots of fighter planes and cargo jets. As far as combat-wise, it was a safe zone, but it was a lot of work. I was the noncommissioned officer in charge of that Base Defense Operations Center.
“It was like being a dispatcher on steroids. We ran the radio and took phone calls for all security. We wrote an 18- or 19-page blotter for a 12-hour shift.”
The highlight for Carpenter during that deployment was receiving a coin from former General and future director of the CIA, David Petraeus.
“His motorcade got into a vehicle accident,” Carpenter said. “I was the officer who took the report for him. After it was over, he gave me a coin—and he said, ‘For your knowledge and your professionalism.’”
Carpenter was active duty Air Force for nine-and-a-half years before family changed her plans, and she switched to the Air Guard, serving out of Des Moines.
On the beach in Florida, in March of 2011, Carpenter and her husband got married. At the time, she was active duty at Hurlburt Field on the Florida panhandle.
In June of 2011, she found out she was pregnant with Dane. It changed her priorities.
“That’s when I decided to get out of active duty,” Carpenter said. “We were going to come back home to raise our family. In December of 2011, I went directly into the 132nd Air National Guard out of Des Moines.”
March 26 will mark her 16th year in the service. She plans on making it to 20.
“I will not have to deploy for two more years,” Carpenter said. “It depends upon what’s going on in the world.”
In the spring of 2017, Carpenter found out her unit was being shipped to Kuwait. Her job was as a flight chief, supervising 82 personnel for security operations on the night shift.
Carpenter was stationed just outside of Kuwait City. She cannot even say the name of the town she was in, but not because of a non-disclosure agreement. It is partially an issue of memory, and partially an issue of the difficulty of pronouncing its name.
“We were on an air base that was half United States and half Kuwaiti.
“I was fortunate enough I could pull a post or patrol with the troops. I did it more toward the end to get out from behind the desk and train some new people.
“I worried about my two boys and my husband back home—things like that made it really hard.
“We worked with Kuwaitis, so that was a new experience, and with Canadian military police and Danish communications people. There were a lot of places I couldn’t go just because I’m a woman. The people were very laid back, easygoing.”
While Carpenter was gone, she missed Knox’s fourth birthday. The year before when she was deployed to Puerto Rico for hurricane relief, she had missed his third birthday.
“I owe this little man a birthday,” Carpenter said.
Moore, her best friend, the player who took her place all those years ago when she injured her knee, organized the surprise in 2019.
“I was supposed to come home Jan. 26, but military travel delays kept postponing us,” Carpenter said. “It seemed like I was there forever, because I was supposed to be gone already on the return trip. So, we never knew for sure when I’d get home.”
When Moore was sure of the date, she contacted KCCI. That Sunday night, Carpenter had to stay in Des Moines for processing.
“She sent me a message,” Carpenter said. “She said, ‘You know, we’ve been friends since eighth grade and shared everything—please don’t be mad at me if I contacted KCCI and they might be at the school.’”
“I said, ‘I’m not mad!’
“She said, ‘Well, okay, because they’re coming for sure.’”
Amy’s husband, her mother, her mother- and father-in-law, close friend and Wayne preschool teacher Adriann Anderson, and sister-in-law and teacher Molly Carpenter were all gathered at the front door.
Knox’s babysitter, Carrie Gassman, brought him to the school.
“I snuck in the back door. Knox was in the office, and they called Dane to the office.”
Dane is in Emilie Jones’ Wayne Elementary School kindergarten class.
“As I was walking down the hallway, I could hear Knox talking with Carrie. My heart leapt out of my chest, just hearing his voice, and not on a telephone. He was the first one who saw me.
“Dane, he is our shy kid. When he saw the cameras, he was kind of in shock. He didn’t know I was coming home.
“He told me afterward, ‘Mom, this is like a dream.’
“For your six-year-old to tell you that, it pulls at your heartstrings. I kept telling him, ‘Buddy, Mommy’s here.’
“And he said, ‘I know, but this still feels like a dream, Mom.’
“Anyone who knows me knows I’m a diehard Cubs fan. I said, ‘This is so much better than when the Cubs won the World Series,” and everybody started laughing.
“I still can’t leave my boys. Everything I do, they do. If I wear jeans, they’ve got to wear jeans.”
“I was excited,” Knox said of seeing his mother for the first time in six months. “I missed her.”
Knox was also curious about the television camera. If the reporter had allowed him, Knox would have given it a try.
“I mostly blocked out the KCCI reporters being there, because I was excited about everything else,” Carpenter said. “When I did talk to them, I told them it was the greatest day of my life, because everything came full circle.”
Carpenter has not yet watched television coverage of her own return home, which can be found on KCCI’s website.
“I experienced it,” Carpenter said. “We’ve got it saved. I don’t know if I’m ready to see it yet.”