Retired Air Force Lt. Col. Karen Mertes knows what it’s like to have your life suddenly altered. On Feb. 7, 2007, her life’s path was forever changed. Stationed at MacDill Air Force Base at the time, she was struck by a drunk driver who was traveling over 100 miles per hour on I-75. He had a blood alcohol level of .221, nearly three times the legal limit. During the crash, “I made a futile attempt to regain control of my vehicle as my car slid sideways down the interstate, with cars in the remaining lanes veering around my car to avoid hitting me. As my life hung in the balance, I made a bargain with God. I promised God that if I were blessed to live, I’d spend the rest of my life helping others. This promise was the genesis of my nonprofit Fulfill Your Destiny.”
Mertes suffered a traumatic brain injury (TBI) in the accident. But she is more than a survivor. She has turned tragedy into triumph, helping others who have had their world shattered pick up the pieces.
Through Fulfill Your Destiny, a 501(c)(3) nonprofit corporation, Lt. Col. Mertes financially aids people in the Tampa Bay community whose careers have been altered by injury or unforeseen circumstances. Special consideration is given to those who have sustained a traumatic brain injury.
“Imagine if you could no longer do what you are trained and experienced to do today. What if everything you have worked for educationally and professionally was gone in an instant? This is my story. Following my injury and treatment, it became apparent I could no longer perform the work required of a military officer with a Top Secret clearance.”
She raises money for Fulfill Your Destiny in 11 ways, five of which involve offering a professional service or product for donation. “As a professional motivational speaker, I educate others about traumatic brain injuries, and I have my tax-deductible honorariums donated directly to Fulfill Your Destiny.”
Her motto is, Be Better Not Bitter, and she shares how people can do just that.
What do you think is the secret to your success?
I believe character drives destiny. I believe in this so strongly that I’ve made it one of Fulfill Your Destiny’s mottos. I’ve spent a lifetime working hard and working smart. Working smart is great, but there is no substitution for working hard, really hard, to achieve your goals. Our Air Force’s core values of integrity first, service before self and excellence in all we do are the perfect fit for me and will remain with me for a lifetime.
My passion for helping others is evident as I donate all of my energies full-time to Fulfill Your Destiny and do not take a salary. I pay 100% of the administrative costs to operate it out of my personal funds. I also donate an additional 10% in honor of each donor, making the donor’s effective contribution 110%.
What is your biggest fear?
It’s been said that fear means false evidence appearing real. It’s also been said that fear means forget everything and run, but I prefer face everything and rise. The choice is ours! The key to being fearless is simply to choose to fear less.
What advice would you give to other women?
I’d like to share advice that was given to me during my sophomore summer in college when I attended the Air Force ROTC 4-week field training. The instructor for my flight class urged me to never give up on the pursuit of my goals and achieving my dreams. His comments laid the foundation early on for me to work toward financial independence. It’s incredibly empowering to make all of my own financial decisions and not have to rely on anyone else. I also believe it makes me a stronger wife because my husband and I are true financial partners.
What is your proudest moment?
My proudest moment in my military career came when I was serving as the Commander, 35th Comptroller Squadron and Chief Financial Officer at Misawa Air Base, Japan. I was the only commander (out of 18) to lead my squadron to an outstanding rating during the Headquarters Pacific Air Forces Unit Compliance Inspection, a feat matched in just 4 of 216 Comptroller Pacific Forces Inspections since 1970.
My proudest moments after my military career stem from choosing to be better not bitter after sustaining my traumatic brain injury. I’m dedicated to enriching lives, and I hope to inspire others living with permanent injuries by rising above my personal challenges to be an example for what focus, perseverance and determination can accomplish.
What is your biggest achievement?
I like to think that I’ve not achieved it yet as I have much left to accomplish. I’m very proud though, of having served our country for just over 20 years.
What makes you happy?
I really enjoy seeing people smile. I strive each day to help people in our greater Tampa Bay community. When others smile, and I know that I contributed to their happiness, that is pure joy for me.
How do you relax and take time for yourself?
My favorite season is autumn because it means that it’s craft fair season. I enjoy going to craft fairs in and around our greater Tampa Bay area, admiring all the amazing and creative works. I especially like the outdoor festivals. I like meeting people in this way and learning about their craft and how they spend their time. I’m also a big fan of Tampa’s Farmer’s Markets and food trucks.
I also enjoy taking cooking classes at the Rolling Pin Kitchen Emporium! To keep being at my best, I take Jazzercise classes as often as possible.
What kind of message would you like to give women in the area or in this community?
I recommend that all parents encourage their children to pursue the highest and best use of their talents and abilities. When I was growing up, girls were not encouraged to study math and science. I happen to have a natural ability and appreciation for math. I even competed on the math team in high school. This led to my receiving an Air Force ROTC full scholarship to major in mathematics (statistics) at Boston University. I attribute many of the successes I’ve achieved in my life to nurturing a skill set and following a non-traditional career path, at least for a woman. I’m very thankful to my parents for encouraging me to be the very best I could be at whatever I chose and to leap beyond my comfort zone!
What else would you like to share with our readers?
I’m the co-author of three books to date: Woman Power: Strategies for Female Leaders, The Power of Transformation: Reinventing Your Life and Fearless Women Visions of a New World. These books are available by suggested donation to Fulfill Your Destiny.
How do you enjoy or draw information from the magazine?
I appreciate that Tampa Bay Parenting gives information with names, dates, locations and descriptions of events and festivals in and around our greater Tampa Bay community. This information is a must-read for me. I enjoy learning about our community in the What’s Happening section. I also like how the magazine showcases activities and events within each county.
What is your favorite thing to do in Tampa Bay?
My husband and I are members of Tampa’s Lowry Park Zoo, and we’ve adopted Cocoa, a resident sea turtle at the Clearwater Marine Aquarium!
Who is your biggest inspiration or role model?
I’m very grateful to all the women who have served in our United States military before me and helped pave the way. Specifically, Major T. H. Baca, the first woman to officially serve as a commissioned officer in the National Guard, Army and military force, eventually rising to major and later appointed Assistant Adjutant General of New Mexico. I was presented an award named in her honor, the Major T. H. Baca Award for my contributions to women in the military.
I’m also inspired by individuals who have been confronted by life-changing events and have persevered. I’m a lifelong learner, embracing the lessons these people share with their stories of triumph.