Sisters in Arms

Featured Sliders / Lifestyle / Stories / May 8, 2017

Soldiers often refer to their fellow servicemen as family. For Col. Grace Link and Chief Warrant Officer 5 Michelle Struemph, their fellow Missouri National Guard members have certainly become a vital part of theirs.

Those bonds for Link strengthened even more through constructing needed buildings with her teams of airmen, and her proven leadership skills elevated her to director of staff for the Missouri Air National Guard.

Struemph’s ‘family ties’ with Guard members grew as she worked hard to become the first female command chief warrant officer of the Missouri Army National Guard and led the charge in establishing the Missouri National Guard’s Sister in Arms Council, which mentors female Guard members and promotes gender diversity.

Their strong work ethic and dedication has proved successful in their military careers. That sense of family — seen in their ambitions to mentor all soldiers — is what truly keeps them motivated.

Col. Grace Link

Col. Link describes herself as one of those “strange people” that totally enjoyed boot camp, reveling in the unifying atmosphere it created.

“I just really enjoyed the team concept, and the military really just became my family from way back when I was a young airman,” she said.

Link was born in Mexico and grew up in Chicago, wanting to join the military at a young age. At 18, she worked with a retired Air Force master sergeant who told her how great the Air Force was. Going active duty was her first choice, but then an Air Guard recruiter encouraged Link to pursue a different military path.

(Courtesy of Grace Link) Col. Grace Link poses with her airmen team and others who helped reconstruct an orphanage as part of a European Reassurance Initiative Humanitarian Civic Assistance project in Latvia.

She joined the Illinois Air National Guard in 1986 and later got her bachelor’s degree and master’s degree to become a civil engineer. While at technical school, she met her husband, Scott, who is now a retired Air Force technical sergeant, and the couple moved back to his native Missouri. 

While at the 139th Airlift Wing in St. Joseph, Link worked her way up the ranks, serving as an executive officer, communications officer, environmental engineer, assistant engineer and base engineer. Before moving into her current role in 2015, she was the deputy mission support commander and the 139th Civil Engineer Squadron commander at the wing. Link’s favorite times were spent with construction teams, building a variety of needed structures throughout the world.

She deployed with the 474th expeditionary Civil Engineer Squadron Commander in support of Operation Enduring Freedom in Guantanamo, Cuba, where her team helped take care of the military tribunal court systems. Link also led multiple military construction projects including building a counseling center for the Wounded Warrior Project in Colorado and Operation New Horizon in El Salvador, the latter of which Link said was “quite the mission.”

“We landed and there was nothing there. … There was a train coming through with parts and lots of antiquated army equipment, and we were thinking, ‘How are we supposed to build a base out of this?’” she said. “From trying to get all these old parts to 21 days later … we had a fully operational base.”

Link and her team of about 50-60 airmen would start some projects from scratch. For others they would pick up where other military teams left off, much like a European Reassurance Initiative Humanitarian Civic Assistance orphanage reconstruction project in Latvia, in which Link was commander. Her team was the final unit on the project, finishing the orphanage for a ribbon cutting.

Link and her team worked alongside Latvian soldiers, contractors and others to complete the orphanage on time. Link said her job was “easy,” coordinating the tasks, getting crews what they needed, and making sure the project stayed on schedule so the airmen could complete the construction work against some strong obstacles.

“They are so innovative. … They really are impressive. … That is what motivates me to watch them; they can see the fruits of their labor,” she said.

(Courtesy of Grace Link) The Link family are all airmen. Col. Grace Link stands with, from left, Scott, her husband and a retired technical sergeant; Zoe, her daughter and a senior airmen; and Scott, and an airman first class.

Those airmen and Link were also motivated by the Latvian orphans temporarily housed in a facility across the street during the reconstruction.

“When we did the ribbon cutting and watched the kids go into their new home, it doesn’t get much more rewarding than that,” she said. “They see us in uniform as big heroes. I don’t think sometimes back home we see ourselves that way. … It keeps me reminded to always represent our country well no matter where we are. … We are ambassadors for the United States.” 

Link’s teams also left good impressions on her two children when they would visit them on state-side assignments. Her daughter, Zoe, is now a senior airman and her son, Scott, is an airman first class.

In December 2015, Maj. Gen. Steve Danner, the adjutant general of the Missouri National Guard, named Link the new director of staff for the Missouri Air National Guard. In that position, Link is a senior advisor to Danner, coordinates joint military functions and formulates long-term strategic plans in support of nearly 2,300 citizen airmen throughout the state, including the 139th Airlift Wing, the 131st Bomb Wing in Whitman and the 157th Operations Group at Jefferson Barracks.

“Whether it is a flying operation or promotion boards for airmen, I make sure they have good established policies for how they do business. I assist them in everything – getting them funds from the bureau or approvals from the adjutant general so they can do those great trips,” she said.

Moments of adversity are inevitable due to the society in which the world lives, according to Link. However, rising above it is how she made the most out of her more than 30-year Air Guard career.

“I have been able to overcome it by staying focused, taking care of the airmen and being the best I could be at what I do,” she said. “Balancing family life has been very important, not letting one take over the other. … There are a lot of great opportunities the military has for women. We really bring a lot to the entire military team.”

Chief Michelle Stuemph

Born at Dyess Air Force Base in Texas, Michelle Struemph became quite familiar with the military from an early age. Her father was in the U.S. Air Force and a Vietnam veteran. He was also part of the reason why Struemph joined the   National Guard.

“I graduated high school in 1984 at 17 and went through a year of college (at Boise State University),” she said, noting she had lived in Idaho since she was 8 years old. “My father joined back into the National Guard and convinced me to join with him, primarily for the educational benefits. … I will have served active duty in the Army National Guard for 31 years, 32 years total.”

(Courtesy of Michelle Struemph) Chief Warrant Officer (CW5) Michelle Struemph fires her rifle during the 2002 Chief National Guard Bureau Biathlon Championships at Camp Ripley, Minnesota as part of the biathlon team. Skiing and rifle marksmanship were the two activities of the biathlon.

Struemph joked her father didn’t stay too long during his second round of military service, but she fell in love with it. She enlisted in the Idaho Army National Guard in 1985 and was stationed in Fort Bragg in North Carolina as an administrative specialist at a regional training site. Soon after she came to serve the Missouri Army National Guard in 1990, she was introduced to the National Guard biathlon team.

Soldiers participating in the biathlon program developed levels of skiing and rifle marksmanship necessary to improve combat ability. For Struemph, these skills were enhanced and her self-confidence was raised.

“It instilled confidence and earned me respect, especially with the male soldiers. I did just as well as them, and they saw me as an equal, a teammate,” she said. “For me, the Guard helped raise me, that was my family. … (They) made me who I am.”

As a biathlon athlete, Struemph was able to compete in locations like France and Germany and win the South American International Biathlon Championships in Argentina and Chile in 2003. Her nights and weekends were spent training and competing, yet she worked equally as hard during the day for the Army National Guard. Struemph first worked as a SIDPERS (Standard Installation and Division Personnel Reporting System) data analyst, a reason why she was able to be active duty in Missouri. Struemph graduated from the Warrant Officer Candidate School at Fort Rucker, Alabama, earning her appointment as warrant officer one.

After about an eight-year stint serving as an administrative officer over the headquarters detachment, she then became the SIDPERS branch chief for about 13 years before assisting the adjutant general’s staff for another three years.

In October 2012, she became the state command chief warrant officer, making her the first female in the Missouri National Guard to reach a chief warrant officer five rank. She supervises morale, welfare, training, administration, selection and management of the state’s warrant officers.

Her military devotion is also felt in her family, with Struemph’s son a graduate from University of Missouri in Columbia and a seven-year combat medic in the military. Her husband has served the Missouri National Guard for 34 years, is the data processing installation chief and also is a CW5.

Even though Struemph will be taking off her uniform after retiring from the Guard in July, she will still be highly involved in the Sisters in Arms Council, which leads a women’s mentorship program and initiative for the Missouri National Guard she helped establish in 2015. As she did throughout her military career, she will continue to help all soldiers achieve greatness.

(Courtesy of Michelle Struemph) Chief Warrant Officer (CW5) Michelle Struemph, center, stands with Shelby Shaffer, left, and Amanda (Kasa) Graham, during their Warrant Officer Candidate School graduation at F. McClellan, Alabama.

“I always felt like you have to work twice as hard to prove yourself. I am an overachiever personality, so I did pretty well. … I am going to help people out, no matter what the rank is,” she said. “The Guard truly has been my family, and I feel an incredible bond. … I love wearing the uniform; I’m very proud of that. … I think it was about finding my passion to what I would move into next.”

Sisters in Arms

A 2014 meeting in the Sedalia Armory initially fueled Struemph’s recent passion with the Sisters in Arms Council and women’s mentorship program.

“Basically we took a hard look at the demographics, comparing our diversity rates to the national diversity rates, with national at 16 and Missouri at 14 overall,” she said, noting they also looked at attrition rates. Those initial statistics showed that 8 percent of senior enlisted ranks were female, with a steady decrease of 7 percent in warrant officers and only 5 percent in CW4 or CW5 levels.

“Through the mid-grade ranks, we realized we are losing a lot of our female soldiers who would never reach leadership roles,” she said.

With the support of Danner, Struemph, Chief Master Sgt. Laura Clark and other key leaders created the Sisters in Arms Council to provide opportunities for mentorship that would empower the Guard, change the culture, increase diversity in senior ranks and develop junior soldiers and airmen into future leaders.

“Our base council is all females because I want women to feel free to openly discuss things without a male present. We have an executive council level that has a lot of male leaders because we are never going to create change if we don’t get more male involvement,” she said. “Then we go all the way to top with the joint council with Gen. Danner on that.”

The logo for the Sisters in Arms Council and women’s mentorship program has significance to women in the military. According to the program’s charter, the minuteman on the left is the symbolism of the Guard/military and is the military unit’s recognized symbol. The female on the right is Deborah Sampson Gannett, the first true female serving in the military. She disguised herself as a man under her deceased brother’s name and fought for the Light Infantry Company for the 4th Massachusetts Regiment where she was wounded in battle. She later was honorably discharged and her secret was never revealed. The year she enlisted, 1782, is to the left of the logo. To the right of the logo is the year 1917, when Loretta Walsh Walsh engaged in a four-year enlistment in the U.S. Naval Reserve, becoming the first active-duty Navy woman, first woman to enlist in the Navy and the first woman to serve in any of the armed forces in a non-nurse occupation.

Struemph said the council first looked at why many female soldiers didn’t make it to or past mid-grade ranks, finding that many factors came into play such as maternity leave.

Maternity leave is up to 12 weeks. It is a wonderful thing, but it brought about some new problems,” Struemph said. “This basically is three months, so how does the soldier stay engrained in her unit when she is gone for three months? Is she going to make a good year for retirement purposes? She would have to make up a drill, before giving birth or after, to make sure she could achieve that.”

She said airmen could apply for active duty jobs while pregnant, but Army Guard female soldiers could apply but would not be hired or start until after having their babies and completing maternity leave.

“A lot of times depending on when she applies, the Guard is not going to go nine months and three months to wait for someone to fill this position. They want somebody now,” she explained.

Struemph said the council developed a pregnancy counseling forum to make sure commanding officers advise pregnant women soldiers on family care plan requirements, breast-feeding, maternity leave, alerts for make-up drills and help with completing their forms so nothing falls through cracks.

Education is another big piece for the council, particularly in making some strides in the Sexual Harassment/Assault Response Program (SHARP) at the Guard. Struemph said a female is in that position, which was dominated by males previously.

More female recruiters were added, a female enlisted officer representative is at every senior command as a point of contact, and Struemph has brought up several new female warrant officers. Recently, Amanda (Kasa) Graham and Shelby Shaffer graduated at the top of their class. Out of 47 warrant officer candidates only 64 made it through the course successfully, with Graham ranking No. 1 as the distinguished honor graduate and Shaffer graduating in the top 10 percent.

“Both ladies overcame huge obstacles to meet the qualifications and make it through the course. … I’m super proud of these two,” she said. “Females need a role model and someone to look up to. … Having a female in a position sometimes is enough and provides the proper role model, inspiring them to become more.”

The Sisters in Arms Council and women mentorship program has future plans to address more gaps between gender differences. Struemph keeps all of the council’s past, present and future plans in her trusty binder, which she almost always has with her.

“I do have (my binder) with me all the time because the program always comes up. I will go to some leadership conferences and they ask if I can speak about the women’s mentorship program; it is really starting to hit people,” she said. “We all know what diversity brings to the table: thinking outside the box.”

By Samantha Pogue

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