On Sept. 11, 2001, the United States was attacked by terrorists.
At 8:45 a.m., 2,763 individuals lost their lives in the attack on the World Trade Center. At 9:45 a.m., 189 individuals lost their lives on the attack on the Pentagon and at 10:10 a.m., an additional 44 individuals lost their lives in Western Pennsylvania when Flight 93 crashed. Almost 3,000 people were gone, just like that.
That day changed the lives of almost everyone living in the United States. If not directly affected by having family and friends taken in the terrorist attacks, to many it meant the direction of their lives was about to change.
Individuals looked at everyday life in an entirely different perspective and for Kelley resident Melinda Blazek, it was a decision she made to help. Blazek was a sophomore attending Iowa State University and studying entomology. She put her study of insects on hold and enlisted in the Iowa Army National Guard.
“I needed to be part of something bigger than myself,” Blazek explained. “I grew up living the ‘Guard,’ it had become a family tradition. My dad is currently in the Guard, serving now for 34 years and my husband is deployed right now to Kuwait.”
There are more than 1,000 women who are serving in the Iowa National Guard. Blazek explained that her days of active service ended on April 3, when she officially retired.
“When I retired on April 3, I had served for 14 years, 10 months and four days,” she said. “I have suffered from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder, and I can no longer do my job as a soldier.”
Blazek attended North Polk High School, and when she graduated she enrolled at Iowa State University. She enlisted after 9/11 and delayed her entry until 2004, when she reported for basic training at Fort Jackson in South Carolina. She then received additional individual training at Fort Lee in Virginia. Upon her graduation from military training, she returned to Iowa State as a second-year sophomore but remained active as a drilling member of the Guard, serving one weekend a month and two weeks during the year.
“I was a full-time student, a part-time employee and a member of the Guard,” she said. “I graduated from Iowa State in 2007 and became a full-time Guard member. I served as a supply technician, helping with aircraft parts, computers and property, working at the flight facility in Boone a full 40 hours a week. It was my job.”
Blazek was deployed in 2012 to northern Afghanistan.
“I did a lot of different things while in Afghanistan,” she explained. “I was a parts tracker when vehicles needed fixed, as well as working with the main computer system and serving on a personnel security detail. Our work in Afghanistan consisted of community-building missions.”
Spending nine months in Afghanistan, Blazek saw most of the country from the air.
“We would be flying and could see into Pakistan,” she said. “Most of what we saw was from the air and not from the ground. Until this deployment, I took a lot for granted. This tour changed me with the experiences I had while there. Overall it was a good experience, but there were a few things that impacted me pretty hard.”
In 2013, she returned back to the United States.
“I was now back to life the way it was before,” she told. “My husband, Christopher, is also in the military, that is how we met. We were both serving actively when our son, Parker, was born. He is now 6 years old.”
Blazek explained that her support system — her mother in Boone, a brother in Omaha and a sister in Nevada — has helped with Parker. Although the couple have not been deployed at the same time, she said that she learned to depend on her family, as well as her military family, to help out.
“I am retiring because I cannot function as a soldier anymore,” she admits. “I plan to be a stay-at-home mom with Parker and am looking forward to this as a new adventure. I have gained a huge family in the military and will never lose their support. There is a huge sense of family with those in the military. I call it my soldier family.”
When asked who Blazek’s hero, is she did not hesitate to name her father.
“My dad is my hero,” she told. “He made a choice to make our lives better by joining the Iowa Guard. He missed countless family gatherings, but he showed me that I can have a family and a career and be successful. I know that he is proud of me. I always thought growing up, that he had a cool job. He flies helicopters.”
Blazek realizes that life will be different for her.
“It will be a big family change with my retirement, and my husband is looking at retirement in 2020,” she said. “But the military has and will always be a big deal in our lives.”