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SERVING HER COUNTRY: Ernst, first female combat veteran in U.S. Senate, recalls leading troops in Iraq

SIOUX CITY | Long before she had a chance to impact public policy affecting the U.S. military branches, Sen. Joni Ernst enrolled in the Iowa State University ROTC program in her sophomore year.

That was Ernst's entry to military service, following in the footsteps of her father, Richard Culver, and the path taken by her eventual husband and many other family members.

With her election to the U.S. Senate, Ernst became the first female combat veteran to serve in the 100-member body. The Iowa Republican said military service has given her a great sense of meaning for her life.

"Everything you do has a purpose, and it is supporting your brother and your sister on your right...Once you've seen that big picture, you don't let the little things drag you down," she said.

Ernst had a life-changing moment after her freshman year at Iowa State, seeing something far different than the experiences of growing up in Red Oak in southwest Iowa. Ernst was among ISU students on an agricultural exchange to a collective farm in Ukraine, which, in 1989, was still part of the Soviet Union.

Living in conditions far different than the mechanized Western Civilization, "the folks there were begging for freedom and they just so badly wanted to know what it was like to be an American, to have the same rights and privileges and opportunities that we did," Ernst recalled.

Ernst said she relishes the freedoms afforded to Americans, "so I thought by being in the military that would be my part in keeping such a tremendous republic alive and well."

So, when she returned to the campus in Ames that fall, she signed up for her first military course and the Reserved Officers' Training Corps. Ernst said she has never regretted that path, which resulted in a 23-year military career that ended when she retired as a lieutenant colonel in the Iowa Army National Guard during her first year in the U.S. Senate.

After graduating from Iowa State in 1992, she joined the U.S. Army Reserves. In 2003, Ernst served as a commander based at Camp Arifjan in Kuwait, leading 150 Iowa Army National Guardsmen during Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Ernst said the one-year stint in the Middle East was a bracing experience, initially running transportation missions in Kuwait and southern Iraq.

"It was really hard when you have Iraqis swarming your convoys and trying to steal stuff off your truck," she said.

As the deployment went on, contracting firms brought in trucks, so the duties became more involved in security tasks that included  "roving patrols, which is more of an MP (military police) type mission," Ernst recapped.

"My soldiers played a really valuable role in that first year of getting established in Kuwait and Iraq. I am very proud of all my soldiers and all that they committed. You know, we lived in miserable, miserable conditions and it is OK. Again, you find out how far you can push yourself," she said.

Ernst's military career had some highs, but even a future senator couldn't avoid some menial tasks over the years. One of her most memorable also came in Iraq, where there were repercussions for those not following the requirement of armoring up with helmets and Kevlar protections.

"I was driving my Humvee and -- I totally forgot, I totally forgot, on accident, I had my mind on other things -- and I did not put my Kevlar on," she recalled. "Some of my MCO's (Movement Control Officers) were driving by and they saw me. I said, 'Well, it applies to everyone else, so it applies to me too.' So, I did a week of cleaning out porta potties."

She added with a laugh, "I did deserve it."