While in the seventh grade, Lena Baunsgard recalls visiting the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier at the Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C.
Guarded 24/7 by a member of the National Honor Guard with a rifle leaned over their shoulder, the marble tomb serves as a symbol for all soldiers whose remains have not been found or identified.
Impressed at the sight of it, Baunsgard recalled how visiting the site motivated her to join the military. At the time, women weren’t allowed to guard the tomb, not to mention she didn’t clear the height requirement, she said, “but I didn’t know that.”
Today, standing in Treasures in Heaven, a nonprofit thrift store she co-owns with her husband, Don, Baunsgard is counting down the days until her retirement from the Washington Air National Guard.
After more than 31 years serving her country as both an officer and enlisted member, Baunsgard will officially retire from the military as of May 1. For the last eight years, Baunsgard has worked as an air battle manager, most recently at the Western Air Defense Sector at Joint Base Lewis-McChord.
“I may not have guarded the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier,” she said, reflecting on her career, “but that dream took me on this path.”
A woman of faith, Baunsgard said she has always felt a calling to serve others, regardless of whether it was through the military. She has worked as a high school teacher, and her thrift shop helps raise funds to build clean water wells in Uganda as well as helping local nonprofits like CarePoint Clinic, Trail Youth and the SnoValley Food Bank.
“I don’t even like driving past someone who’s broken down on the side of the road,” she said.
After her trip to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, Baunsgard said she was zealous in her effort to join the military. She enlisted between her junior and senior year of high school on delayed enlistment, disregarding her guidance counselor’s advice to take the ACTs in case she decided to go to college instead.
While she was raised in a military family — with both her grandfathers and father having served — Baunsgard became the first woman in her family to serve, often battling sexism that came with working in a male-dominated agency.
“I went into the military raised not to believe I was any different,” she said.
The summer after graduating from Mount Si High School in 1991, she was off to basic training in San Antonio. She would soon be transferred to a base in Illinois, where she started to learn meteorology.
After nine years on active duty, she separated from the military, getting undergrad degrees in meteorology and exercise science, followed by a masters in teaching.
Baunsgard then reenlisted, and was later commissioned as a weather officer with the Montana Air National Guard.
“When I became an officer, I really felt like I had accomplished something,” she said.
As her retirement nears, Baunsgard said she is ready to help the next generation, content to split her time between substitute teaching, helping at the thrift store and caring for her teenage children.
And while her military career did not go quite the way she planned, it did give her direction.
“I didn’t have a direct path,” she said. “But I accomplished more than I ever thought I would.”
To hear more from Baunsgard, Listen to her interview on the Coffee Break with Trail Youth Podcast.