Growing up on a dairy farm in South Dakota had two big effects on Col. Leslie Maher, the new commander of the 375th Air Mobility Wing at Scott Air Force Base.
First, it helped her develop a strong work ethic. She and her three siblings got up early to milk cows and do other chores before school each day.
Second, it made her want to leave her hometown of 120 people and see the world.
"I've always had a wanderlust," she said.
The military turned out to be a perfect fit for Maher, 49. She has traveled all over the United States for education, training and service and logged more than 1,900 hours as a navigator on the KC-135, an aerial refueling aircraft.
Maher also spent 18 months doing diplomatic work with Japan and later attended the Brazilian National War College. Perhaps most rewarding was her leadership of hurricane-relief teams in Haiti and Puerto Rico.
"They actually got to put rice in the hands of Haitians," she said. "They got to go out and make sure that they got the medical care they needed."
On Feb. 20, Maher became the third female commander in the wing's 69-year-old history. The promotion didn't surprise Lt. Col. Matt Getty, her operations officer in 2012 and 2013, when she led the 6th Operations Support Squadron at MacDill Air Force Base in Florida.
Getty, 43, later served at Scott for three years and now is a national security fellow at Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University in Massachusetts. He still considers Maher a mentor.
"She's compassionate and sincere, but tough and driven," he said. "She has a great balance. I think that's her biggest attribute."
The former Leslie Jacobsen grew up in Dallas, South Dakota, and went to school in nearby Gregory, a hotspot in the world of pheasant hunting.
Her father owned a farm-implement business, selling tractors and hay balers, while her mother ran the family's dairy farm. They raised their own beef cattle and grew their own vegetables.
Young Leslie was an honor student, cheerleader, student council member and musician who played oboe and percussion.
"In marching band, she played the xylophone," said childhood friend Melissa Belfer, 49, who now lives in St. Louis. "It was pretty heavy, and she was pretty thin."
The two girls were in a graduating class of 29 students.
At one point, student council members sold magazines so they could raise enough money to hire a well-known rock band to perform at prom. Belfer remembers Leslie being the top seller.
"She was always so focused and mature beyond her years," Belfer said. "She was smart, and I think she worked harder than the rest of us."
Joining on a dare
Maher knew nothing about the military in 1987, when another high school friend dared her to talk to a U.S. Air Force recruiter at a career fair.
Maher enlisted mainly because she didn't want to burden her parents with the cost of a college education, especially since her father was dealing with a lawsuit related to a car accident.
"I didn't pick my job," she said. "I let the Air Force do it for me, and it ended up being aircraft maintenance."
Maher trained in Denver then headed to Las Vegas to work on classified aircraft, the F-117. She was one of only two airmen picked for the top secret duty, out of 50 interviewed.
"It was a crazy start," she said. "All of a sudden, I can't tell my mom where I'm going every week. I'm not available to her four days a week. It was different for a 19-year-old."
It wasn't long before Maher met husband-to-be Ed Maher, another aircraft maintainer. When he got orders to go to Italy, they decided to get married.
Leslie Maher went into the Air National Guard and stayed in the United States to complete her bachelor's degree in Spanish with a minor in chemistry at Wichita (Kansas) State University.
"I had a very successful enlisted career," she said. "I was ready to make chief master sergeant. I had no desire to be an officer. I was very happy with the way I got to lead and the environment I was in."
However, Maher decided to become an officer to facilitate her long-term family planning. She was commissioned in 1996.
Fair and predictable
In the past three decades, Maher has trained and served on Air Force bases in Alabama, Washington, Virginia, Florida, Texas, Kansas, California and New Jersey. She earned a master's degree in organizational management at George Washington University in Washington, D.C.
One of her favorite assignments was working 18 months for the Joint Chiefs of Staff as a military liaison between the United States and Japan in 2009 and 2010. She loved the diplomatic aspect.
"At that time, we had 45,000 sailors, marines, airmen and soldiers who were living in Japan and serving in the military, and that didn't include their families," she said.
Getty describes Maher's leadership style as motivational, fair and predictable to the extent that airmen know what to expect, whether they're being commended or disciplined.
"She's probably taught me more about leadership than anybody else in my 20-year career," he said.
Maher came to Scott in July 2017 to join Headquarters Air Mobility Command staff. In February, she replaced the former 375th wing commander, Col. John Howard, who was removed in December due to sexual-misconduct allegations. The case now is under investigation.
For two months, vice commander Col. W. Chris Buschur was in charge at Scott. Maher noted that the base had a "very successful" inspection last fall and recently celebrated its 100th anniversary.
"The foundation is solid," she said. "I get that rare opportunity to not have to try and fix basic things. I get to think strategically on how the unit can grow over the next decade or the next 100 years."
Maher and her husband have been married 24 years. They have two sons, Luke, 11, and Nick, 10. Ed Maher, 60, retired as a Air Force master sergeant in 1999. He's proud of his wife.
"I've seen her go from being enlisted to where she is now, and she does an outstanding job," he said. "She's all in."
Leslie Maher gets up at 4 or 4:30 a.m. each weekday and runs on the track or works out in the gym before heading to the office. She also takes time to pack the boys' lunches.
At night, Leslie Maher is the family's main chef.
"If I'm not grilling outside, she's cooking dinner inside," Ed Maher said. "If she's going to be late, I might throw something frozen in the oven."
After dinner, both parents help the boys with homework.
Leslie Maher doesn't have much time for hobbies, although she likes a good game of Scrabble now and then. She also watches her sons play sports whenever possible.
Since Belfer lives in St. Louis, she attended Maher's assumption of command ceremony Feb. 20, along with 500 other people, most in uniform. It was full of pomp and circumstance, handshakes and salutes.
"I have no connection to the military, so to me, (Leslie is) like a celebrity," Belfer said.
This article is written by Teri Maddox from Belleville News-Democrat and was legally licensed via the Tribune Content Agency through the NewsCred publisher network. Please direct all licensing questions to email@example.com.