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At Tuesday’s event, Rep. Kristi Noem, South Dakota Republican, recognized Sgt. Fontaine and presented her to the audience. Eight other members of the Congressional Caucus for Women’s Issues were present at the event — including Illinois Democratic Rep. Tammy Duckworth, an Iraq War veteran — each introducing one of the five female honorees.

“Looking over this memorial, we know that women have always risked their lives for this country,” said Ms. Duckworth, who lost both her legs and sustained injuries to her arm while serving as a U.S. Army helicopter pilot.

Sgt. Fontaine recalled how she started her basic training at Lackland Air Force Base in San Antonio, Texas in 1998, after which she was deployed to Kuwait and later sent to Iraq as a radio/telephone operator and fire team leader. Upon her return to the United States, she was moved to the National Reconnaissance Office’s Counterintelligence Division in Chantilly, Virginia where she was awarded the NRO Bronze Medal for her espionage investigations.

Both Sgt. Fontaine and Sgt. Perito have taken advantage of the military’s support of continuing education while serving. Sgt. Perito is currently obtaining her degree, and Sgt. Fontaine completed her bachelor’s degree online through the University of Phoenix.

Sgt. Fontaine said she originally thought she’d only enlist for four years and then attend college.

“My father was in the military and so I just went and showed up at a recruiter’s office one day and said this is what I want to do,” she said. “I thought I’d just do it for four years, and I’ve been in 16 years now, and I don’t plan on getting out any time soon.”

And life has nearly come full circle for the sergeant, who is back at Lackland AFB, instructing civilians who are currently in the same spot where she once found herself. She was selected by the Air Force to serve as a military training instructor at Lackland, giving the first introduction to about 1,000 civilians about life as an airman.

Asked if she sees herself as a role model, Sgt. Fontaine replied that’s “a difficult thing to call yourself.”

“If anything, [I’m happy] if I can just share the fact that there are opportunities, and [tell others] to always accept those opportunities, rather than look at them as obligations,” she said. “Just don’t turn anything down.”