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Minnesota National Guard
The Face of Today's National Guard

Houston Soldier part of historic all-female Iraq mission

HOUSTON, Minn - Staff Sgt Michelle Smith is part of the face of today's frontline armed forces: volunteer, part-time and increasingly female

Smith is among the 1,590 women in the Minnesota National Guard, where she has served since 1990 She is on a year-long deployment in Iraq

On Christmas day, Smith was part of a historic all-woman mission Two Black Hawk helicopters with women at the controls and women crew chiefs - including Smith - at the 240H door machine guns flew the "Baghdad shuffle," shuttling troops and important cargo from base to base around the Iraqi capital

Not only were all those on board women, so were the Soldiers who planned the mission, briefed them beforehand and later refueled the helicopters

Lt. Col. Kevin Olson, spokesman for the Minnesota National Guard, said he found no evidence of any other exclusively female missions in the guard's history In 2005, an all-woman crew in southwest Asia flew a combat mission on a C-130 transport plane, a first for the Air Force

Smith said they didn't set out to prove anything except the unit had enough female troops to do it

Nearly a quarter of the Soldiers in the 2-147 attack helicopter battalion are women, compared with 134 percent for the Minnesota National Guard as a whole That's partly because certain jobs - such as infantry and artillery - are off-limits to women by federal law

But on the modern battlefield, which has no "front line," all Soldiers can see combat, Olson said

"We don't get shot at a lot," Smith said "But it does happen"

Smith won't talk about close calls She doesn't want her family at home worrying about her

Seven months into her year-long deployment, she's been on leave the past two weeks at her home near Houston, with friend Patty Burfield and the 11 cats, two dogs, chickens and goats that roam the spacious backyard

On the garage is a sign with a dove, proclaiming, "Pray for peace Act for peace"

That was Burfield's doing, something she put up before Smith left - "to make people think about it as they go by"

Burfield is opposed to the war, but supportive and proud of Smith and her service

As far as the war, they agree to disagree

Smith was scheduled to fly to Iraq today to finish her deployment It is the third time the 38-year-old Minnesota City native has been mobilized

The first was in 1991, shortly after she joined the guard

"The day I graduated from basic training and (advanced individual training), the sergeant got on the bus and said, "˜Privates, we have something to tell you,'" she said

Within days, Smith, then with a military police unit, was off to Fort McCoy and then Saudi Arabia for the Gulf War

In 1995, when her MP unit was disbanded, Smith had to find a new specialty

Since the infantry wasn't an option, she chose to fly

"I'm not a sit-behind-a-desk kind of gal," she said

She was deployed in January 2004 to Texas for 18 months to replace an active-duty unit sent to Iraq Smith volunteered for that assignment as well as her current one

When not on active duty, Smith works for a civilian contractor as a range safety officer, helping other troops at Fort McCoy pass their weapons training

It's the latest stop on a varied career path that has included factories, a dairy farm and a calf ranch "I like to experience lots of different things," Smith said

Now she has figured out her calling: a large-animal veterinarian She's used her down time in Iraq to research vet schools and plans to enroll at Winona State University when she returns to finish her undergraduate degree

Believe it or not, she is looking forward to retiring from the military, something she plans to do in three years

It will be the end of one chapter and the beginning of the next, she said

"I love the military I love the job that I do," she said "I'm ready to continue on with my life"

Chris Hubbuch
La Crosse (Wis) Tribune

Article source: http://www.winonadailynews.com/

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