Special Reports

Daughters follow father into 116th and into Iraq war

KIRKUK, Iraq — Sgt. Brooke Knutzen of Moscow has an unusual job with the 116th Brigade Combat Team in Iraq.

She rides around the streets of Iraq with her upper body poking through the roof of a Humvee, a machine gun in her hands.

That's not what makes her unusual. Nor is it her gender that makes Knutzen different than most other Humvee gunners.

What makes her different is one of the people she's protecting: her father, Lt. Col. Steve Knutzen of Clarkston, Wash.

Steve's situation is unusual, too. Not only is 24-year-old Brooke his machine-gunner, she's just one of two daughters he has serving with him in Iraq.

Brooke's sister, Gayle, 20, is a Humvee driver at FOB Warrior in Kirkuk. Brooke's husband, Pfc. Ben Kreger, is also in Kirkuk. And so is Staff Sgt. Rich Stover, the husband of Brooke's twin sister.

Having so many Guard members from one family is no accident or coincidence. Steve led them in that direction.

Three of Knutzen's four daughters followed him into the 116th Brigade Combat Team. Another daughter, Helene, is in the Guard, stationed in Boise.

"I always figured if it's good enough for other people's kids, it's good enough for mine," Knutzen said.

"He just always loved the Guard," Brooke said. "We were strongly encouraged."

Brooke has been in the Guard for six years; Gayle, a specialist who lives in Boise, for four. When the 116th deployed, Steve and Gayle got called up, which prompted Brooke to volunteer.

"I figured if everybody else was going, I might as well come along," she said.

All three ended up assigned to FOB Warrior at the Kirkuk Regional Air Base.

"We were pretty lucky, we didn't get split up," Brooke said.

"It's good because you have a support group here," Gayle said.

Most soldiers have to treat Steve, the lieutenant colonel, with respect for his rank. Not so his daughters.

"It's kind of like being at home," said Steve. "... they flick me a lot of crap."

A father never stops worrying about his kids.

"You never completely get rid of that, but I respect their ability," Steve said. "I think the only time I'm really worried is when I can tell they're worried."

Brooke admits she was a little nervous when Gayle went on her first patrol outside FOB Warrior, even though Brooke had been on several patrols before that.

"I would have thought she was silly to be nervous about me," Brooke said.

On the homefront, their mother, Melissa Knutzen of Boise, has a tougher time dealing with the separation and with having two of her daughters in Iraq. Divorced from Steve, she lives with Brooke's twin, Helene.

"It's really hard," Melissa said. "I try not to worry and try to be positive, but if I lost a child, I don't know what I would do."

There are other strains at home as well, especially for 15-year-old Kent Knutzen.

"My son had a difficult time with us all over here," Steve said. "He can't help thinking we're in peril over here."

For the most part, things have been relatively calm in Kirkuk, but the Knutzens have been in convoys that were fired at or triggered roadside bombs.

"We've been really lucky on ours," Brooke said. "There have been people who go out on the same routes as we do and see action."

Those patrols are particularly hard on their mother.

"I worried when I got a phone call and they said 'I almost got shot the other day,' " Melissa said. "I didn't sleep that night."

But so far, Iraq has been a positive experience. Brooke and Gayle say they don't mind being women in a predominantly male world.

"It doesn't bother us. We're used to being in the military," Brooke said.

"You're basically one of the guys, but you're still a girl."

Gayle said men often think she's not strong enough to be in the military "but you prove them wrong."

The Knutzens are pretty well known in the Idaho National Guard. Steve has been in the Guard for 23 years and has recruited a lot of young people.

"He's famous around here, or infamous," Brooke said.

"Everybody on this FOB knows we're related," Gayle said.

Any downsides to having a dad on the same base?

Steve laughed and said no. His daughters agreed. Steve told a story about a recent karaoke night at the Clamtina, a recreation center on the base.

Steve sang "Johnny B. Goode." Gayle sang "I Touch Myself."

"I thought the chaplain was going to have a heart attack," Steve said.

Roger Phillips can be reached at rphillipsidahostatesman.com or 373-6615.