How one NAU occupational therapy student took command of her life, and a unit in the military 

Kiera Butler and her family at a military ceremony.

When 26-year-old Kiera Butler sat down to share her story, she did so knowing that the following day she would be boarding a plane from Phoenix to Pittsburgh. Trips like these are commonplace in Butler’s life, one that is characterized by a calculated balancing act as she pursues a doctorate in occupational therapy while being in command of a unit in the military. On this trip to Pennsylvania, she would be participating in a planning workshop ahead of a large training exercise to take place in the summer. Upon returning from the intense military workshop, she would continue her studies at the Phoenix Bioscience Core in pursuit of her doctorate.  

“Where do I start?” Butler said of why she’s pursuing this degree. She recalled her family sharing something unexpected with herKiera Butler in her military uniform with her parents on either side of her kissing her cheeks. at age 13. Before Butler was born, the family’s doctor had prepared them for her to be born with Down syndrome. While this turned out to be a false positive in testing, Butler says the impact was profound: “It made me have a heart for families who are either prepared for an atypical life or are just thrown into one.”  

To her, occupational therapy (OT) represented the perfect career path for someone who wants to serve those whom life has hit in unexpected ways.  

Pursuing an education in such a field, however, can be expensive. Her father had served 21 years in the Air Force, and though she didn’t have much of a drive at the time to follow in his footsteps, the tuition assistance offered by the U.S. Army Reserve was necessary to help her pursue her educational dreams of becoming an occupational therapist. At age 18, Butler enlisted.  

“I ended up falling in love with the structure, the discipline, the experiences and the people that I met,” Butler said when reflecting on the impact that joining the military had on her life. “I can’t put a price on the experiences that I’ve gotten in the military. That’s when I decided that I wanted to continue facilitating experiences for other soldiers.” 

Kiera Butler and her sister hugging at a sporting event.And facilitate experiences for other soldiers she has. As she began her three-year doctoral program in 2023, she also assumed command of her own military unit. As a company commander, she is responsible for every person and every piece of equipment assigned to the unit. To Butler, taking command of her own unit is both “scary and beautiful.” She has 40-plus people to look after, and while it is daunting, Butler remains steadfast in her commitment to excellence.  

“I’m still figuring it out, one week at a time,” she said. “I’ll think I’ve got it, and then the next week we need to go back to the drawing board.”  

Despite the natural bumps that may arise, Butler takes every mistake as a learning opportunity, both in the field and in the classroom. 

Learn more about NAU’s OT program at   

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Julius Happonen | College of Health and Human Services

NAU Communications