Air Guardsman Enlists at 35, Excels

Illinois Air National Guard Airman 1st Class Tanya L. Brown, a services journeyman with the 182nd Force Support Squadron, wraps food after lunch in Peoria, Ill., May 2, 2015. (Illinois Air National Guard/Staff Sgt. Lealan Buehrer)
Illinois Air National Guard Airman 1st Class Tanya L. Brown, a services journeyman with the 182nd Force Support Squadron, wraps food after lunch in Peoria, Ill., May 2, 2015. (Illinois Air National Guard/Staff Sgt. Lealan Buehrer)

PEORIA, Ill. — Illinois Air National Guard Airman 1st Class Tanya Brown was a full-time everything three years ago — beautician, livestock farmer, college student, wife, and mother to four children. Then, not being one to shy away from a challenge, the 35-year-old decided to join the Air National Guard.

Along the way, she earned a 94 percent technical school class average, the Thunderbolt Certificate for Fitness Excellence, the Small Arms Expert Marksmanship Ribbon, and a 98.5 percent physical fitness score.

What motivated the 182nd Force Support Squadron airman to add military service to her hectic life, and how did she excel at it? It all started with a haircut.

Brown was working as a cosmologist and esthetician when an Army sergeant needed a last-minute haircut before reporting for duty. Brown assisted him. Recruiters had recently visited her oldest daughter's high school, so Brown started asking questions about the armed forces. The sergeant asked her if she had ever considered enlisting.

Brown said she was too old for that. The sergeant disagreed, and it made her begin to wonder.

She continued her questioning during his monthly haircuts until he finally offered to connect her with recruiters. One of them was Illinois Air National Guard Tech. Sgt. Stephen Graves from the 182nd Airlift Wing.

'Unusual' Recruit

Graves said the average age of recruits coming through his office was 17 to 23, so Brown was not his typical customer. The cutoff age for new enlistees is 39.

"It was unusual," Graves said, "so we try to let [older enlistees] know that 'OK, this is what you're going to get into. You're going to be held to the same requirements,' and she was all for it."

Brown said that one thing led to another and she ended up enlisting.

"I didn't even tell my family and friends for a while," she said. "My husband knew when I went and bought the running shoes. [He] looked at me and goes, 'You're serious about this, aren't you?'"

Brown had not run in 15 years, so she started training for Air Force basic military training in San Antonio. However, that was not the only obstacle she anticipated.

"I was nervous about going to basic and tech school at such an age difference," she said.

Blending In, Helping Out

She knew that she needed to blend in with girls nearly half her age.

"I just kind of sat back and just let people be who they are and just try to become part of the group," Brown said, adding that she did have to administer some wisdom when attitude problems flared up in the dormitory.

"I wasn't being mean or anything, but I would take them aside and I'd say, 'Hey, there's a better way to deal with something like this,'" Brown said. "And then, after a while, they'd start coming to me if they were sick. It was funny. They'd start coming to me like I was a nurse or something, or their mom."

Brown called her smile her biggest challenge in basic military training.

"You know, it was hard for me because I've been in the public, working all the time around people and learning how to smile and customer service, and all that," Brown said. "Well, when I went down to basic, you can't smile … And that was my biggest thing — getting yelled at for that."

Brown passed her two-week physical fitness evaluation and kept pushing herself to see how far she could go. At age 36, she earned the second-highest award for fitness with 57 sit-ups, 43 pushups, two pullups and a 1.5-mile run time of 11 minutes, 28 seconds.

After a short visit home, Brown attended the Services Apprentice Course in Fort Lee, Virginia. She said that she chose the career field because she already had a background in customer service and food preparation, having held a food sanitation license for more than 10 years. She also saw the career's mortuary affairs training as good knowledge to apply to her nursing studies.

Happy to Have Enlisted

Brown returned home after graduating technical training school in 2014 and began work with the force support squadron. She said that she is still happy she enlisted.

"I love it. I think everybody around here's pretty cool," Brown said.

Illinois Air National Guard Master Sgt. Sarah Markham, the services superintendent at the 182nd FSS, said that the feeling is mutual.

"Tanya Brown is one of the hardest-working, [most] self-motivated, energetic airmen I've ever encountered throughout my career," Markham said. "She has proved to be an asset to the force support squadron and is always on point with the mission at hand."

Recently, she completed a mandatory career development course and has also resumed studies at Richland Community College. She said she is pursuing an Associate of Science using the GI Bill and the 100 percent paid tuition grant offered by the Illinois National Guard.

Brown said that no one excuse could keep a person from serving if they wanted to.

"I say, if you want to do it, do it," Brown said. "Doesn't matter what age you are. If you're determined to do it, you set your mind to it, you can do it. No matter what."

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