KWAJALEIN, MARSHALL ISLANDS – It’s a long way from her stomping grounds of Circle Pines, but Amber Bates feels like she’s landed where she and her family are supposed to be.
Amber, who graduated from Centennial High School in 1997, works in the mission safety department for Kwajalein Range Services, a contractor that operates on the U.S. Army’s Ronald Reagan Ballistic Missile Defense Test Site in the Marshall Islands — specifically on the Kwajalein atoll, a group of coral islands that is part of the larger Republic of the Marshall Islands. The site, part of the Army’s Space and Missile Defense Command, is used to test equipment for the United States’ missile defense and space programs.
While a missile defense site might not be the first choice of many families, Amber said she, her husband David and two adopted kids Ciela and Atesh have a heart for island life and the people they’ve met. Amber even recently completed an initiative to help some of the country’s children through the gift of learning.
“This is a great place to raise kids, quiet and safe,” Amber said in an email interview. “They attend the school on the base … and the teachers are excellent and the classes are small. We’re both very happy at our jobs and love the opportunities for travel that living here affords us.”
The Bates family took a circuitous route to get to the Marshall Islands, one that involved a lot of international traveling. After graduating from Centennial, Amber — then Amber Sheppard — attended Carroll University in Waukesha, Wis., where she majored in biology, joined the track and field team and made friends in the Chi Omega women’s fraternity. While at Carroll, she had her first real taste of international life, taking part in a semester-at-sea program that ferried her to 10 countries in 3 1/2 months. She loved the experience, and her fraternity sisters encouraged her to keep traveling. She spent time in Kenya through an exchange program and went hiking in Australia after graduation.
“[Post-college], I felt that my time in the fraternity and traveling the world had been a waste, but in the end, those two things were instrumental in helping me get to where I am today,” Amber noted.
After Australia, Amber moved back to the decidedly non-exotic locale of Iowa and proceeded, unsuccessfully, to attempt to break into the job market. Her biology degree was not in high demand, and she ended up having to work several minimum-wage jobs to pay the bills.
“I found out pretty quickly that I probably should have spent more time studying and exploring career paths in college because I was completely unprepared to enter the job market,” Amber said.
Eventually, she decided more schooling was in order, so she moved to Nebraska to get a medical technology degree. While in Omaha, she met David, an electrical engineering student.
The two hit it off right away but were soon forced into the longest of long-distance relationships when he got a job working at the South Pole for more than a year. They weathered the trials of separation and were married in 2007, but the travel bug had bitten them both. Amber got a job in Antarctica, and David worked on an ice-breaking team before landing a position at Kwajalein Range Services; Amber joined him not long after. They lived on the small island of Roi-Namur, and Amber took a small plane to the larger island of Kwajalein every day for work.
“It sounds glamorous, but it was like taking a very small, noisy bus twice a day, every day,” Amber remarked.
Amber’s job primarily deals with operating the site’s transmitters and antennas for mission safety.
“Our department tracks incoming and outgoing launch vehicles and has the capability to terminate flight if there are any deviations in their performance that could harm personnel,” she explained. “I also work with the [Radio Frequency] Safety department, performing RF surveys to ensure personnel safety and issuing reports on our findings.”
The Bates enjoyed their jobs, but their lives took another turn on Christmas of 2009, when they were watching some Christmas dances (called “jeptas”) put on by some local children at a church on a nearby island. Both Amber and David felt something at the same time and realized they wanted to adopt a child. They adopted Ciela about a year later, and in 2012 they adopted Atesh, whose biological grandparents live nearby and who are very involved in the Bates’ lives. Throughout the adoption processes, the Bates very much felt that the matches with their children were meant to be, perhaps felt most strongly when the adoption agency sent them a picture of Ciela.
We only thought to ask her age and her birth name,” said Amber. “Imagine our shock when they said her name was Heaven; the name we’d chosen for her … [is] a feminization of the Spanish word for heaven.”
The adoptions also put the Bates more in touch with the local Marshallese communities. Atesh’s grandparents live on the island of Ebeye, and not long after the family adopted Atesh, Amber began traveling to the island to teach English classes to young men. That was only the beginning of her involvement in local education.
“[I had] a telescope that I’d bought in high school and brought all the way to the Marshall Islands,” Amber explained. “With a growing family living in a small house, we needed the space, so I asked a friend if the local high school might be able to use it.”
She donated the telescope to the Kwajalein Atoll High School, but when she brought it to the school, a science teacher told her it was one of the school’s only pieces of science equipment. She thought of his statement later while talking to an American acquaintance about what he could bring while visiting Kwajalein.
“I had the idea that he might be able to bring science supplies and contacted the school again to see if they thought a fundraising project might be a good idea,” she said. The school was supportive and sent me a list of items they needed to stock their science lab, and Operation: Science Stuff was born.”
Soliciting donations online and elsewhere, Amber was able to raise more than $2,000 for Operation: Science Stuff, enough to buy wish list items like microscopes, chemistry glassware and tools for physics and astronomy. Amber, whose longtime interest in science was cultivated at Centennial under science teacher Ronald Bergantine, is happy with the project’s success.
“My only goal was to encourage a love of science in the students at the high school and prepare them for further education,” she said.
Whether they’re raising money for a school, working at the test site or potty training their kids, the Bates’ lives are an adventure. Amber keeps track of the family’s exploits on her blog, www.ourcharmedlife.net, and said that she and David are open to whatever life has to throw at them next.
“We’re open to every possibility, from moving to another country, to moving back to America, to staying here for the next 20 years,” she said.