When Col. Joane Mathews was promoted to brigadier general April 4, she became the first female general in the Wisconsin Army National Guard, an accomplishment that came with nearly 30 years of challenging experiences in the military.

Mathews’ decades of service in the military has taken her from places like Alabama to Germany to Wisconsin. In addition to being the first female general in the Wisconsin Army National Guard, she was also the first female army chief of staff, first female brigade commander and first nonmedical female colonel.

Mathews said her time in the military has brought her not only challenges and near death experiences, but also a family.

One aspect of the military that she said makes her proud is the warm atmosphere of teamwork and family that goes along with it.

“Everybody takes care of each other,” Mathews said. “If we see each other struggling, or we have a task we have to accomplish, we all get through it together.”

April 14 marks the anniversary of a time when Mathews needed her comrades for support. In 1994, two blackhawks were shot down in northern Iraq. Though it happened more than 20 years ago, Mathews said the accident is still very clear to her today.

At the time of the accident, Mathews was a company commander and one of the casualties of the incident was one of her soldiers. Others were soldiers she had flown with or worked with.

“It didn’t dawn on me till a year later, it didn’t hit me, that that could have been me that was shot down,” Mathews said. “I was flying those same aircrafts, those same missions in northern Iraq.”

Mathews said she and her fellow soldiers came together to grieve and get through that difficult period together. Though dangerous situations come along with being in the military, Mathews said fear is not something that gets in her way.

“It’s not about … ‘I’m afraid.’ You’re very committed to the missions that are assigned to you and the duty,” Mathews said. “That’s what motivates me, and I think that’s what motivates the soldiers and all the other service members that are deployed. They’re very proud to serve.”

Mathews said she was always interested in the military, but first got involved by taking an ROTC class. She joined the military after receiving an ROTC scholarship her junior year at the University of North Dakota-Grand Forks, where she earned her degree in aviation administration.

Courtesy of Flickr user Wisconsin National Guard

Mathews said serving in the military has put her through challenges that she had never experienced before. Many would expect being a woman in a male dominated field like the military to be an additional challenge, but Mathews said the male competition helped her become a better pilot and a better soldier.

“I tried not to … think of myself as a female,” Mathews said. “I thought of myself as just another team member or another classmate and not … as a female or as a minority. I’m just like everyone else.”

Mathews said being the first female general in Wisconsin shows other women that they have the ability to achieve the same ranking as her in the future and even higher rankings.

One of the most important things for those in the military —male or female — is to set goals and reach them, Mathews said. She said it’s important to persevere and not give up.

“I’ve never been a quitter, and I don’t know that many people in the military that have been a quitter that have succeeded,” Mathews said. “Sure it’s tough as you’re going through it, and it’s easy to just give up, but you’d be so much prouder of yourself if you don’t give up and continue on to the very end.”