On their shoulders — Medical Detachment commander credits legacy of women for success

Story by Staff Sgt. Scott Raymond, Kentucky National Guard Public Affairs

In recognition of March as Women’s Month kentuckyguard.com is publishing a series of articles honoring women who are significant figures in Kentucky’s military history.  The following is one such story ….

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Col. Natalie Lonkard gets help from her 6-year-old grandson, Braden during her promotion ceremony in Frankfort, Ky., Feb. 25, 2013. Lonkard’s daughter and father were also in attendance to see her become the only female colonel currently serving in the Kentucky Army National Guard. (Kentucky National Guard photo by Staff Sgt. Scott Raymond)

FRANKFORT, Ky. — Natalie  Highley Lonkard has worked in the medical field for more than 20 years. She continues to use her skills as a nurse as both a civilian and a Soldier. Following several deployments at home and overseas during a successful career in uniform, Lonkard was recently promoted to the rank of colonel and assumed command of the Kentucky Medical Detachment in Lexington, Ky. She is the first official female commander of the 76-Soldier unit, and the only woman currently serving in the Kentucky Army Guard as a colonel.

As the commander of a unit that is 35 percent female, certainly a higher diversity rate than most units, Lonkard relies on past experience and influences that have helped her climb the ranks to encourage new generations of women in the National Guard.

“Younger female Soldiers will realize  that they can meet the goals that they set forth for themselves in the military,” she said. “I have worked with many, and hope that they see in me what I received from those before me; you can do whatever you choose to do with education, a strong work ethic and a little perseverance.”

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2nd Lt. Natalie Lonkard cares for an Iraqi child in a mobile hospital during Operation Desert Storm, 1991. (Courtesy photo)

Lonkard wanted to join the military straight out of high school to serve her country, and to see the world. But she waited, became a registered nurse in obstetrics and started a family. With a young daughter, Lonkard decided the National Guard was the better option to stay closer to home. She enlisted into the Kentucky Guard’s 475th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) in 1989.

As a newly commissioned 2nd lieutenant, Lonkard’s time at home came to an end with the United States’ involvement in the liberation of Kuwait in January, 1991.  Lonkard and the 475th deployed to the Persian Gulf in support of Operation Desert Storm. She said it came as a surprise, something the recruiter did not tell her about. The unit set up a hospital for wounded service members, but also treated local civilians as well.  Lonkard said the unit’s mission became one of humanitarian aid although it was recognized as a military support mission.

“I do remember several of the Iraqi patients we had there,” she said. “I worked two newborn deliveries, which was my civilian job, so I felt very comfortable assisting those women.”

After six months away from home, Lonkard returned to Kentucky and continued her work in both uniforms.

Lonkard later deployed to the Caribbean island of Dominca where she taught CPR and Obstetric classes to local health professionals.  She also provided her skills in medical clinics as part of missions to Ecuador and Guyana.

In April, 2008, Lonkard was again mobilized as the commander of the Warrior Transition Battalion at Fort Campbell.  She remembered this as a highly visible position there, surrounded by the home of the 101st Airborne Division.  She was faced with three obstacles; she was female, she was a nurse, and a National Guard Soldier, all on an active duty post that was anxious of what kind of commander she would be.

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Lt. Col. Natalie Lonkard during the change of command ceremony for the Warrior Transition Unit at Fort Campbell, 2008. (Courtesy photo)

For two years, Lonkard keep in mind the many factors necessary for the care of so many young men and women injured in both Iraq and Afghanistan.

“Our mission, to provide for the Soldier and family with the medical process was difficult at times,” she said. “But when they would come back to thank you for what you did, it was all worth it.”

After a stint as the case manager for the Kentucky Medical Detachment, Lonkard received her opportunity to put her 20-plus years of medical experience to use as the unit’s commander.

“Reaching the rank of colonel is a very important milestone for me that not many obtain, much less many women,” she said. “I am looking forward to the challenges that are ahead for our unit in meeting the needs of Kentucky’s Soldiers. We want to assure that every Soldier is medically ready to be deployed or meet a mission requirement within Kentucky.”

Lonkard attributes a lot in her career and life to those she has surrounded herself with, in both military and civilian sides of her life.  She said both careers complement each other well and those co-workers and fellow Soldiers have given her quality experiences and great stories that she will remember always.  Her employer, Frankfort Regional Medical Center has been very supportive of her military career as well.

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2nd Lt. Natalie Lonkard and members of the 475th Mobile Army Surgical Hospital (MASH) stand outside their tent in Saudi Arabia during Operation Desert Storm, 1991. (Courtesy photo)

“Females in my units were always there for me,” said Lonkard. “Col. Karen Likins, Col. Franketta Zalaznik, Col. Betty Robb and Lt. Col. Lisa Amburgey were all there to make us realize that if we worked hard for the National Guard, we would be promoted accordingly and that being a female would not be an issue.”

She feels her time has proven her to be honest, fair and loyal to all that wish to work together toward common objectives.

“I hope that this new command position will provide the opportunity to assist Soldiers within my unit and across Kentucky to meet their career goals. I believe in teamwork, communication and education. With an emphasis on these three, I feel that any goals can and will be met.”

Lonkard’s words and influence has continued its reach of encouraging new generations of female Soldiers. Capt. Sabrena Fields has served with Lonkard since the 90s, calling it an honor to serve with her. Fields also credits Lonkard with inspiring her to continue her education and furthering her own nursing career.

“I feel that Colonel Lonkard has opened the door for many more women and female Soldiers coming up in the ranks,” said Fields. “They realize that there are many opportunities to further themselves in the Kentucky National Guard.”

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