By Laura Silver, Photo by Sara Rubinstein
As the fifth of 10 children, Minnesota Army National Guard Major Amber Manke (M.Ed. ’12, Ph.D. ’15) jokingly says she initially found military service a breeze: Her drill sergeant was a far less intimidating disciplinarian than her long-suffering mother. And she took some transferrable skills to the military. “I could eat fast and I already walked fast and I could listen to orders,” she says with a laugh.
Despite her self-deprecating insistence to the contrary, Manke has worked hard and overcome daunting personal circumstances to achieve her rank, her advanced degrees, and a collection of honors and awards by the impressively young age of 30. Her dedication to helping others, especially her fellow veterans, through her volunteerism earned her a Veterans’ Voices Award from the Minnesota Humanities Center in 2014. That same year she was one of 28 Army officers nationwide to receive the prestigious General Douglas MacArthur Leadership Award.
Manke’s upbringing in a big, often destitute family in Milaca, Minnesota, instilled in her a strong value of public service. Despite two house fires—one that left the family living in a pole shed for a year—Manke and her family were grateful to have a roof over their heads. “My mother really drove home the fact to us that you work hard for everything; there are people less fortunate than us, and we will do what we can and help them.”
With no money for college, Manke took advantage of her high school’s post-secondary enrollment option and completed her bachelor’s degree at St. Cloud State University in two and a half years. But by her senior year she felt something in her life was missing. Motivated in part by 9/11, she joined the Minnesota Army National Guard as a human resources officer, eventually becoming company commander—one of only six female commanders in the 11,000-strong Minnesota Army National Guard—responsible for 100 soldiers. With her recent promotion to major she becomes assistant chief of staff. Yet she’s not just a reservist; in her day job she is an education services specialist with the Guard in Inver Grove Heights, helping soldiers navigate the complexities of education benefits. She especially loves the developmental counseling component of helping veterans find their passion and purpose in their educational choices.
Manke’s passion is in her volunteer work, which bears a striking resemblance to her professional work. She gravitates toward organizations that resonate with her own life experiences—those that serve veterans, homeless families, and disadvantaged children. One such organization is Mission Continues, a group that helps veterans transition back into civilian life through community action projects.
There are about 26,000 post-9/11 veterans in Minnesota, and while their unemployment numbers are dropping, from 14.1 percent in 2013 to 8.8 percent in 2014, they remain higher than for those of other vets and for the state as a whole. Nationwide, the unemployment rate for veterans in 2014 was 5.3 percent while the overall unemployment rate in Minnesota that year was 3.7 percent. Manke believes part of the solution is to help vets sort through the “abundance of resources” available to find where they fit in. “They have a lot to give,” she says. “They have so many experiences, from building small teams to leading.”
From 2011 to 2012 Manke was deployed to Kuwait as part of Operation New Dawn, where, in addition to her service, she finished her master’s degree in education from the University of Minnesota. Upon her return, the self-described lifelong learner was selected from among thousands of applicants for the Pat Tillman Foundation’s prestigious Tillman Military Scholar program. Manke used her scholarship to pursue her Ph.D. at the U in organizational leadership and policy development, with a focus on evaluating leadership development programs specifically for women. Her postdoctorate goal is to teach part-time at the university level and stay connected to the veteran community, most likely working at a nonprofit that helps vets find jobs.
In appreciation for her Tillman scholarship, Manke, a dedicated runner (she’s a volunteer coach with Girls on the Run, a nonprofit that benefits teenage and preteen girls) ran the New York City Marathon in 2013 to raise money for the Tillman Foundation. On an unseasonably warm day this past October, she once again ran as a member of Team Tillman, this time in the Chicago Marathon. The money she’s raised in her two races nearly matches her scholarship award; it’s another testament to Manke’s determination not only to give back but to pay it forward by providing opportunities for future scholars.
Manke loves her role as mentor and teacher, and she recently went back to her hometown of Milaca to speak to a group of third graders about being a soldier. When the children entered the auditorium she heard them gasp. “It’s a girl?” “It’s a girl!” Their reaction surprised and amused her, and it validated the importance of her presence. She told them, “Yeah, it is a girl, and women do serve. I feel like it’s part of my duty to educate others about why we’re here, why we wear the uniform, and this important role that we play in society.”