Master Sgt. Tessa M. Fontaine had no idea when she enlisted in the U.S. Air Force that she'd one day be responsible for catching spies.
But her role in helping to crack a Cuban spy intelligence ring was one of the stories featured this week at a ceremony at the Women in Military Service for America Memorial in Arlington, Virginia, a story that also helped to shine a light on the contributions millions of female American vets have made to the nation's defense this Memorial Day.
According to the Air Force, Sgt. Fontaine "cataloged 16 hours of Cuban spy intelligence, orchestrated 148 hours of spy debriefs and thwarted threats to a $5 billion national system." In 2013, the sergeant was named one of the service's 12 "Outstanding Airmen of the Year."
The counterintelligence work, she recalled, was exactly what she was looking for when she enlisted as an 18-year-old looking to "do something bigger than myself."
"I did something I thought I'd never be able to do," she said. "Having a direct impact on national security and working on an espionage investigation was pretty amazing. [It was] something that I thought I'd never be able to be a part of in my life."
The Holyoke, Massachusetts native is one of the more than 200,000 active-duty military women who will celebrate this Memorial Day with their service families, remembering the lives of their fallen friends. For those women who can't be with their families this solemn holiday, Sgt. Fontaine said, their fellow servicewomen serve as a second family.
An estimated 2.5 million women have served in military and military support roles since America's founding. Of the 1.4 million Americans currently serving in the military, roughly 206,000 — or 15 percent — are women. Women legally started serving in the armed forces in 1948 after the passage of the Women's Armed Services Integration Act.
However, this act banned women from piloting any kind of military aircraft. But the barriers have steadily come down since then: The Air Force began enrolling women in flight training in 1975, pilot training in 1976, navigator training in 1977 and fighter pilot training in 1993.
The role of women in the U.S. military is set to expand dramatically once again after former Defense Secretary Leon Panetta in January 2013 mandated that "unnecessary gender-based barriers to service" be eliminated by 2016. The burden will be on the individual branches of the service to defend any remaining gender barriers and to seek an exemption.
Tech. Sgt. Roz Perito, 34, also serves in the Air Force, and in the days leading up to Memorial Day was visiting the Arlington National Cemetery's women's memorial for the first time.
"This is definitely a field trip for me, to get familiarized with the area," she said. "It's interesting, how they have this place set up, it's just mind-blowing. Everything is so organized and people are actually interested in what we do in the military. It means a lot."
Sgt. Perito and Sgt. Fontaine both forwent college to enlist in the Air Force immediately upon graduating from high school.
"[I signed up] to serve my country, No. 1. And No. 2, I wanted to do something different," said Sgt. Perito, who is currently stationed at Andrews Air Force Base in Maryland. "I guess some folks go to college. I decided to enlist and see what the world had to offer, [because] we travel everywhere."
Some 200,000 people visit the Women in Military Service Memorial at Arlington National Cemetery every year. The memorial was first approved under President Reagan and opened to the public in 1997.
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."