Jena Yonker walked into her first day of school at Nodaway Valley High School Aug. 25. It would be her last first day of school, her senior year.
A few things were different this first day of school. Of course, there were COVID-19 restrictions in place, masks encouraged and social distancing in place, but her twin sister, Natalie, wasn’t around either. She was engaging in military training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, following the conclusion of the recent high school softball season.
Jena would’ve liked to be with her sister training, but a recent celiac disease diagnosis didn’t allow her to continue pursuing her military goals.
“This was definitely different because we have a lot of classes together. It was weird not seeing her there,” Jena said. “It was weird seeing her go and me not going with her.”
Considering military service together
The twins have grown up doing everything together and telling each other everything, so being apart this summer was different for them, especially for Jena, the one who stayed home.
Jena was the first one to think about military service as an option for her future, after all. The physical and mental discipline, along with the college financial aid incentives that come with being in the military, were both big players in that goal for her.
Natalie and Jena’s great grandfather, Frank Duncan, was a drill sergeant in the Marines before he took charge of the military police in the National Guard.
“Jena wanted to be in the Marines actually. She started talking about the military and I kind of started thinking that maybe that would be a good idea for me because I had heard of the benefits you get from it,” Natalie said. “I wasn’t interested in the Marines, but I heard about the National Guard.”
This summer’s training was the first dose of military training Natalie has had. She and her fellow trainees were taken through the ropes of grueling ruck marches that lasted long distances, firing ranges that tested each trainee’s marksmanship, obstacle courses that included low crawling through mud underneath simulated enemy fire over a length of three football fields, and more.
“I’ve always been into sports, so the physical training was difficult and very tough, but I was used to those types of things. It was just very difficult being away from home,” Natalie said. “At first, I was very, very scared because I’m just 17 going into the military, being away from home and out of state with people I don’t know, getting screamed at by drill sergeants, but they taught you discipline, taught you everything.”
Graduation day from training for Natalie was supposed to be Aug. 27. She was due to return to Greenfield the next day, but she and three other trainees ended up leaving immediately after graduation. Jena was originally supposed to pick Natalie up at the airport Friday night, however Natalie decided to surprise her entire family by coming home a little early.
Natalie stayed in Des Moines with a cousin last Thursday night after landing there and drove to Greenfield Friday morning, surprising her parents, Jason and Danielle, and going to surprise Jena, who was in class at the high school. The surprise yielded many photo opportunities for the sisters with classmates, teachers and school administration as the school showed their appreciation for Natalie’s service to her country.
Jena is glad Natalie is back. Both students will now focus on enjoying their senior year together, studying together, and Natalie is currently the starting libero for Nodaway Valley’s highly-touted volleyball squad currently ranked 15th in Class 2A.
“I’m definitely excited for sports with her,” said Jena, who pointed out that track and field is the main sport she and her twin share a passion for. “She helps me through some classes, so I’m glad she’s back for that. I’m excited for this school year.”
Natalie said that after high school she’d like to go active duty with the National Guard, although time will tell the exact road she’ll go down in her military service.
“What I carried from this training is that they instilled in us the Army values, so loyalty, duty, respect, selfless service, honor, integrity and personal courage. Those were what we lived by down there. I just know I have to be those things. They taught you how to be an adult,” Natalie said. “I’ve thought about going active possibly because I enjoyed this so much. It was an awesome experience.”
Danielle enjoyed witnessing Natalie’s early return home from training and is proud of both of she and Jason’s daughters for what they’re accomplishing in life at this young age.
“There just aren’t words. We’re pretty proud of both of them,” Danielle said. “We missed Natalie a lot. Jena said she wasn’t upset [that she couldn’t go with her], but I could tell she was a different kid when her sister wasn’t here.”