Durst, 28, of Greenville, a sergeant for the 1073rd National Guard Maintenance Division, described herself as a “floater” in high school. She wasn’t that shy, but not one to be part of a group either, admitting she struggled to fit in to a new school when she transferred from Greenville to Cedar Springs High School her sophomore year.
By her senior year, she had no direction beyond graduation. As her mother, Karen Johnston, put it, “She wasn’t sure what she wanted to do with her life.”
But a presentation at the high school about the American flag and its meaning sparked something in Durst so deep that it inspired her to take a different path than college. She decided to enlist in the National Guard that following week of her senior year, 2003.
Having learned both generator maintenance and human resources from step one, experiencing two deployments to Iraq (2005 and 2009), marriage, a baby and caring for/worrying about her two younger sisters also enlisting into the military, there are only a few things that test Durst’s nerves nowadays.
“Going into Wal-Mart with my uniform on by myself,” she chuckled. “It’s fine when I’m with people in my unit and we are at the store, but for some reason, I’m not comfortable being there by myself in uniform. It’s the same when I’m on base in civilian clothes. It feels weird.”
FOLLOWING IN BIG SISTER’S FOOTSTEPS
Durst admitted she was a little surprised that both her sisters chose to enlist in the National Guard, too.
“They were fantastic students. They didn’t need (the military), not like I did,” Durst said. “Of course, when they both decided to enlist, I became mother hen and helped them however I could to prepare for military life.”
Cole enlisted in July 2008, five years after Amanda did. Newman followed suit, joining a year later. Both Cole and Newman were looking for more than the typical high school-to college-to career path.
“I wasn’t as happy as I could be,” said Cole, 26, who earned a degree in supply chain management and marketing from Grand Valley State University. “I saw what Amanda was doing, sought her advice, and everything from there seemed like the route to take my life into.”
Durst said of the three of them, her youngest sister, Newman, seemed the most natural fit for military life.
“I think I’m the funny one, Trisha is the most responsible, but Malorie is the muscle,” said Durst. “She is a very headstrong girl.”
Cole is a sergeant with Echo Company 3-238 Aviation Battalion in Grand Ledge. Newman, 24, was commissioned as a second lieutenant last May in the 1-82nd Field Artillery Battalion in Detroit.
“I felt like there was something missing,” Newman said. “I wanted to do more with my life.”
Both Newman and Cole said they took Durst’s lead and learned a lot from her about the military experience, which Durst has plenty.
Durst’s first deployment to Iraq lasted 15 months. For the most part, the experience was great, except for one incident, in which a convoy she was in was attacked. Although no one was killed, it left Durst with a real dose of the realities of war.
“Going to Iraq was the best experience,” she said. “The convoy attack gave me a reality check, however.”
Fortunately, for Durst’s second deployment, Cole accompanied her.
“It was scary when I finally got the orders to deploy, but having to go with my sister made it so much easier,” Cole said.
For Durst, it was a relief, as she had a hard time leaving her husband, Isaiah, and their young daughter, Keyana.
“Leaving my daughter, who turned 2 two days before I left, was definitely the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do and scary on a whole different level vs. the convoy (incident),” Durst said. “I was scared she would forget who I was and our relationship we had. I was scared of missing firsts, like potty training, swimming, words, and reactions to new things. I was scared for myself and if something happened to me and then she would never have her mom and the chance to hear me sing to her or hold my hand again.”
Though she kept in touch with her family through Skype, Durst admitted it was easier to just talk to them on the phone rather than seeing them on video.
“Actually seeing and hearing them made me want to be with them that much more,” she said. “It got to a point where phone calls were better for me to handle.”
Having her sister overseas with her helped Durst cope with her longing for family.
“I was so thankful Trisha was with me on that second deployment,” Durst added. “It was so nice to have her there. We shared a room and hung out every day.”
MAKING THE MOST OF ONE SELF THROUGH MILITARY LIFE
For Johnston, seeing all three of her daughters make a leap of faith into military life was nerve-racking, especially when her first born enlisted.
“I didn’t handle it well at all,” she said. “Amanda joined when she was 17. It was shocking. But the military has improved each and every one of my daughters. It’s done tremendous things for my girls.”
Johnston said the National Guard gave Durst a direction in life she needed. For Cole, it brought her out of her shell, making her more self-sufficient and outgoing. And her for youngest, Newman, it allowed her to shine as a leader.
“The military has been awesome for my girls,” Johnston said.
The National Guard, which 15 percent of it is women, according to the U.S. Department of Defense, has become not just a support network but an extended family for Durst and her sisters.
“It’s amazing the pride you feel when wearing the uniform,” Durst said. “You feel pride all the time. The mesh you have with the people in the military, a good portion of it is like family.”
Newman echoed her sister’s feelings.
“It’s like being in a brotherhood,” she said. “You train with a lot of people you didn’t know, but after a day or two, it’s an instant bond. You are meeting someone and soon after they’re like family.”
Cole, who is the only female in her maintenance section, said her National Guard experience has made her more assertive, confident and has given her better decision-making abilities.
“What I’ve learned most is that I have the capability to do things for myself that I never knew I could accomplish. I’ve found that the strength you need to be successful in the military is more emotionally tough than physical.”
Newman, who was the first female in her unit, has gravitated toward leadership opportunities since enlisting to the National Guard.
“If you take that initial step, you’d be really surprised what you can take on,” said Newman.
Durst would encourage any young woman to enlist with the National Guard.
“In the event that they are scared or hesitant, I would definitely recommend that they start with the National Guard and I would explain how beneficial the National Guard is to a Soldier who loves their local community and does not want to miss being separated from their family and friends,” Durst said. “Overall, I think being a National Guard Soldier provides the most beneficial opportunity for the community.”
Through the National Guard, Cole was able to tap into her potential as a leader.
“I don’t know where I’d be without the military,” she said. “I know now what I’m capable of doing and I know I’m capable of doing more, thanks to the military.”
Being able to relate to each sister with their own military experience has been a blessing for each sister, as well, making their family bond even stronger.
“If I was the only one in the military, I’d have to censor a lot of what I would tell my sisters,” Durst said. “But because we are all military, it’s great because I don’t have to hold anything back and they know exactly what I’m talking about and how I feel.”
“Having them here, too, it’s enhanced my whole experience in the military,” she said. “I’m able to relate to them so much more.”
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