Tanya Whitney joined the Army for the educational benefits. Her decision shaped her life in ways for which she’s still being honored.

Whitney, 58, will be inducted into the Army Women’s Foundation Hall of Fame on March 11 in Arlington, Virginia. The Sorrento resident spent 27 years in aviation maintenance with the Army and National Guard, finishing as a master sergeant, and she’s spent much of the following years helping veteran organizations and causes.

“Anything that we need her to do to help us out, she’s been right on it,” said Brent Gautreau, commander of Veterans of Foreign Wars Gonzales Memorial Post 3693. “She’s led the way through a lot of it. We didn’t have to ask. She just went and did it.”

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Whitney is chairwoman of the Ascension Veterans Memorial Park Committee, which maintains the Gonzales park that commemorates veterans. In addition to Veterans Day and Memorial Day events at the park, the committee performs flag retirements, in some cases removing the stars and placing them on a card honoring a specific veteran to create a keepsake for families, she said.

“Anything to make sure our veterans here locally are recognized,” said Whitney, who is also a volunteer cross-country coach at St. Amant High School.

Whitney also has served in honor guards at funerals through the Women Veterans of Louisiana; has organized fundraising banquets for Wounded War Heroes, which provides fishing and hunting trips for wounded or combat-disabled veterans; and has been active with the American Legion and Veterans of Foreign Wars.

For someone to whom the military has come to mean so much, it really wasn't Whitney's first choice.

She attended college, didn’t like it and got laid off from a job repairing cables for an oil and gas exploration company. She decided she wanted to give college another try but didn't have the money.

That's when she enlisted in the Army. The next step was deciding what she would do there.

“In the early ‘80s, probably only 50% to 60% of the jobs in the Army were open to females, so I was trying to find something I could get as close as possible to being a combat soldier that I could,” Whitney said. “Initially, I was looking at tank turret repair … and the guy said, ‘You don’t want to do that. … You want to be a fixed-wing mechanic. If you want to be a mechanic, do this.’ Why not? That’s how I ended up in aircraft maintenance.

“Yes, the Army does have airplanes. A lot of people don’t realize that.”

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And those airplanes go all over the world. Whitney was deployed to Honduras, Kuwait, Iraq, Afghanistan and Djibouti to service aircraft and rose to master sergeant as she “far and away exceeded the expectations for accomplishment and competence” in maintenance, according to the foundation.

Deployments to the Middle East between 2004 and 2006 coincided with large-scale military operations in those countries. She was primarily on bases, but that was no guarantee of safety. Her comrades nicknamed one base “Mortarville” because it was attacked so regularly.

“When bullets and rockets and mortars start flying, there are no front lines,” Whitney said. "The days of the old trench lines and everybody lining up in a row and tanks lining up in a row and going to engage, that’s gone. Everything is pretty much guerrilla warfare.”

After completing her four-year Army commitment, Whitney joined the Louisiana Army National Guard and maintained active-duty status until 2010. She worked as a civilian in the Army’s Air Priority Transport program, earning the Army Civilian Award for Achievement, before retiring for good in 2012.

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Email George Morris at gmorris@theadvocate.com.