LAKE WALES — Kat Gates-Skipper is quick to say she is a true Marine.
Born on the shores of Tripoli, Libya, in 1957 at Wheelus Air Base, Gate-Skipper's life has always been influenced by the U.S. military.
Now retired from the Marine Corps, Gates-Skipper, 58, has made it her mission to help veterans.
"I went to apply for his VA benefits and what a nightmare that was," Gates-Skipper said. "We were on this backlog for eight years. That's when I became an veterans' advocate, to go out there and help others who are not as knowledgeable, not as fortunate to have the contacts that I do."
Gates-Skipper was a speaker in the Defend Freedom Bus Tour that traveled to Pensacola, The Villages and Jacksonville; participated in the Vets on the Hill initiative urging reform of the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs; and is an active volunteer with the American Legion in Lake Wales.
"She gets the word out that we're here and that veterans are in need," said Andy Anderson, post commander at American Legion Post 71. "She is a staunch advocate of veterans because she is one and helps any way she can. She helps get them the benefits they are entitled to."
Jimmy Nelson, owner of Nelson Financial Strategies and a Navy veteran, has known Gates-Skipper for about 15 years. He said she is one of the most active people in veteran affairs in the area.
"I think it's easier to ask what she doesn't do for veterans in the community than what she does," Nelson said. "I would say that her activities are instrumental."
But Gates-Skipper's life could have turned out differently if it were not for her biological grandparents.
Guiseppina Dona, a 17-year-old girl from Italy, discovered she was pregnant in 1957. The father of the baby was a 29-year-old member of the Italian Mafia, Gates-Skipper said.
"Unbeknownst to her, he was already engaged to someone else," Gates-Skipper said. "And we're talking about the 1950s, it was a different kind of world back then. So my grandparents took her to North Africa."
A friend of Dona was working as a maid for an Air Force colonel and his wife, Edwinn and Nellye Peters, who were stationed at Wheelus Air Base in Tripoli, and explained the situation to them.
The couple had been trying to conceive a child but Nellye Peters had experienced seven miscarriages.
"She (Nellye Peters) said that she was just waiting for me to be born," Gates-Skipper said. "God brought me to her is what she said."
She was born on Sept. 19, 1957, in Tripoli, Libya.
But when she was 4, Gates-Skipper's father was sent on an Air Force mission and never returned. Her mother later met Mack Mackenzie, a Navy aeronautics instructor in Millington, Tenn. Although the two never married, Gates-Skipper considered him her stepfather.
Shortly after graduating from Key West High School, Skipper-Gates moved to Winter Haven with her family so Mackenzie could work as the Red Sox clubhouse manager.
As Skipper-Gates got older, she realized she was forming a bad habit.
"When I was growing up and things got tough, I would just give up," she said. "So I made a pact with myself one day. I was tired of giving up and said, 'If I can make it through a Marine Corps boot camp, I can do anything.' So I enlisted in the Marine Corps. Boy that was a hard, hard choice. The basic training was the toughest. Here I am already disciplined, I'm from a military family, but a Marine Corps boot camp will make you grow up overnight."
Gates-Skipper did not give up and started active duty in 1975.
She was the first female Marine in Desert Storm combat operations, she trained the first female Kuwaiti soldier and she was the first female Marine to stay aboard a ship overnight.
"There might be some more firsts out there, I don't know," she said. "I thought it was a great honor. I was happy to have paved the way for women. I was really happy to do that, be a role model, if you will."
Gates-Skipper retired from the Marines in 1994 with the rank of staff sergeant.
There was always an unanswered question hanging over Gates-Skipper. Who was her biological mother?
Gates-Skipper had been working with a friend from Italy to track down Dona but she lost contact with him in 2008.
She said she was starting to think it was too late to find her mother when her husband told her to start praying about it.
"I go in my office, in front of my computer, I'm just like, 'Lord, if it's in your will, let me find my mom,' " she said. "All of a sudden I get a message on my computer, 'Bing.'"
That is when Gates-Skipper learned her uncle was located and her mother was still alive.
Three months later, Gates-Skipper was on a street in Perugia, Italy, when she saw her newly discovered uncle walking an elderly woman across the street. Once she realized who the woman was, nothing else in the world mattered.
Gates-Skipper had only three days to spend with her mother but still communicates with her brother on Facebook.
There are still hurdles she has to face that stem from not knowing much about her biological parents.
"Being adopted, when it comes to health issues, I'm completely blind," she said.
Gates-Skipper said she has had thyroid problems in the past and she now faces a new issue.
She's been diagnosed with Type 2 diabetes.
"The doctor said, 'Either you change your diet and exercise more or you'll have to go on insulin.' I cried," Gates-Skipper said.
She is now in the process of changing her lifestyle so she can be there for her grandchildren.
"I've always helped everybody but now it's time to take care of myself," she said.
What's next for Gates-Skipper? She said writing a book is not out of the question.
"I've done a lot and I'm just glad that I can do what I do, especially for the veterans," she said.