Maj. Elaine Nussbaum of Bloomington has a sing-song voice, infectious laughter, and a smile that stretches across her face and never seems to go away – even after working a 20-hour day.
She is a 4-H Club alum, has competed in multiple scholastic bowl tournaments, performed with Illinois State University’s Gamma Phi Circus, sings in her church choir, and played parts in Bloomington-Normal community theatre – although she has never been cast as a tough, determined, and combat-tested Army leader.
And that is exactly who she was for more than two decades in the Illinois Army National Guard.
Nussbaum officially retired after 22 years of service on Friday, Nov. 4, during a ceremony at the Illinois National Guard’s headquarters on Camp Lincoln in Springfield, Ill. During the ceremony she said that she does not “look or run or even sound like a Soldier.”
That did not matter to the Soldiers who served with Nussbaum. They described an officer who led with authentic caring and kindness, who would work “crazy” long hours to ensure the troops had what they needed, and who would surprise those celebrating, or struggling, with small empathetic gifts. When she corrected Soldiers, it was always with respect and an eye toward personal and professional growth. They described an officer who lived all the Army Values – Loyalty, Duty, Respect, Selfless-Service, Honor, Integrity, and Personal Courage.
“To me, she is the epitome of what a leader should be in the military,” said Chief Warrant Officer 4 Amanda Camden, who has worked with Nussbaum in logistics for several years and been on multiple exercises with her. “I think she was born that way. Her thoughtfulness, her compassion – it is who she is at her core.”
Camden’s 13-year-old dog, Sadie, died two weeks before the Eager Lion exercise in Jordan this year. Nussbaum brought her a small stuffed animal that looked like Sadie. When her 8-year-old cat, Ollie, died during the exercise, Nussbaum was there to just listen. “Yes, they were pets. But she understood what they meant to me.”
“Maj. Nussbaum has influenced me to be an empathic leader, look for the positive before giving up, take the time to think of others, and to take pride in everything I do,” said 1st Sgt. Eric Daggett, who worked with Nussbaum in the Illinois Army National Guard commercial transportation office. “She is the smartest, kindest, most dedicated person I know,” he added. “Whenever I encounter an unfamiliar challenge, am ready to throw in the towel, or am dealing with Soldier issues, I will always reflect on Maj. Nussbaum’s influences. She has truly made me a better person.”
Nussbaum started her career with the Paris-based 1544th Transportation Company, joining the unit as a Simultaneous Membership Program Cadet contracted with the Reserve Officer Training Corps at Illinois State University in Normal, Ill. She graduated with a bachelor’s degree in Elementary Education and commissioned as a second lieutenant in 2003.
Nussbaum graduated from the Transportation Officer Basic Course in 2004, received two weeks of deployment training at Fort Bliss, Texas, and was thrust into one of the most challenging combat deployments in the Illinois National Guard’s modern history – the 2004 deployment of the 1544th Transportation Company to Iraq.
“She wasn’t afraid – no, she was afraid. We all were. Anyone who says they weren’t afraid is lying. But she didn’t show her fear. She was a strong person for her Soldiers,” said Chief Warrant Officer 4 (retired) Raymond “Keith” Butler, who served as one of the senior NCOs with Nussbaum on the 2004 deployment. “She listened to her NCOs, showed confidence in her Soldiers, and worked tirelessly – tons of hours – to take care of her Soldiers.”
Five 1544th Transportation Company Soldiers were killed in action during the deployment: Staff Sgt. Ivory L. Phipps, 44, of Chicago, Ill.; Spc. Jeremy L. Ridlen, 23, of Maroa, Ill.; Sgt. Shawna Morrison, 26, of Paris, Ill.; Spc. Charles Lamb, 23, of Casey, Ill.; and Sgt. Jessica L. Cawvey, 21, of Mahomet, Ill. Many more of the company’s Soldiers were wounded.
Nussbaum had to wait to deploy until after graduating from her officer basic course. Both Phipps and Ridlen were killed in action before she arrived in theater. Just days before Nussbaum left, she attended Jeremy Ridlen’s funeral services in Illinois where she talked to Jeremy’s twin brother, Jason, also a Soldier in the 1544th who had escorted his brother home from Iraq. “He gave us helpful hints – information we could use in theater. I was amazed by the selflessness. He was mourning his brother, and he was concerned about us. We had some truly incredible people in that unit.”
“I would not take back a day I spent in the military except those days when we lost brothers and sisters,” Nussbaum said. “I’m kind of protective of our five brothers and sisters. They were not just random people or numbers to us.”
She is also protective of those who survived the deployment and carry on the legacy of the unit. “There was so much focus on the horrific losses. (The media) never talked about how the Soldiers kept on going – going back on mission the very next day after an incident. They didn’t talk about what they accomplished. There was never any talk about how our Soldiers came back and worked great jobs, or started families, or went to school. Or, as a unit, how great they did at (Fort Chafee, Arkansas’ Exportable Combat Training Capability) or (Fort Irwin, California’s National Training Center) or learning to use and maintain new equipment. They never focused on the positive stuff – the competency, strength, and resiliency of our Soldiers,” Nussbaum said.
“Her leadership style has always been maternal,” said Lt. Col. Bradley Roach, the commander of the 6th Battalion, 54th Security Forces Assistance Brigade. When Nussbaum was the commander of the 1544th Transportation Co. after the deployment, Roach was the commander of the then East St. Louis-based 1344th Transportation Co. The two became close friends as they worked together to improve training for their units. Nussbaum is the Godmother of Roach’s 4-year-old daughter, Rosalyn, and still regularly plays Bunco with his wife, Rachal.
Nussbaum might be a kind soul with the tendency to see the best in people, but “don’t mess with her Soldiers,” Roach warned. Or, as Butler said, “If you poke mama bear, watch out.”
There are multiple stories of Nussbaum coming to the defense of her Soldiers. There was the time during the 1544th deployment when she pulled her tired and weary Soldiers from a ceremony rehearsal. There was the time when she walked out on a senior officer when the idea of re-designating the 1544th was raised. As a logistics officer, she went through great lengths to ensure that Illinois National Guard Soldiers received adequate contracted lodging, meals, and laundry service during multiple state active duty missions in 2020.
But the most famous story is how “Major Nussbaum can take a punch.”
After she was commissioned, but before the 1544th Transportation Co. deployed, Nussbaum volunteered to serve as the designated driver when some of the unit’s NCOs decided to have a few drinks at a local bar after a day of training. As the night went on, a group of men decided to pick a fight with the Soldiers. Nussbaum tried to get the Soldiers into the car and away from the situation, but when it became apparent that the two groups were squaring off, Nussbaum jumped into the middle of it trying to break it up. She got hit, directly in the face, by an errant blow. She was mostly unfazed by the blow to the face and finally succeeded in getting her Soldiers home safely. But she sported a spectacular shiner for a couple of weeks.
“She will, without hesitation, jump right in the middle of it when it comes to protecting her Soldiers,” Butler said. That was true in a bar brawl before the deployment and it was true of firefights during the deployment. It earned her the respect and admiration of the Soldiers, Butler said. “We were really happy to have her with the unit.”
“I was fortunate to have exceptional NCOs that made my job a lot easier,” Nussbaum said. “I worked hard to learn as much as I could as fast as I could. I knew I could go to my NCOs with questions. They had the knowledge and experience. My biggest fear was making a decision that might get someone hurt.”
Sgt. 1st Class Phillip Tuttle, the first sergeant of the headquarters company of the 232nd Combat Sustainment Support Battalion, who served as one of Nussbaum’s squad leaders and later her platoon sergeant was among those trusted NCOs during the 1544th’s 2004 deployment. “Soldier care is her forte,” Tuttle said. “She has dealt with some grumpy, high-strung NCOs. She listened to the troops, and if they had issues, she went above and beyond to resolve them. We were, and still are, a tight family. It was really good to get her back with the unit.”
Soon after Nussbaum arrived in Iraq, theater policy changed forcing the unit’s female Soldiers out of the company housing area and into a big warehouse building with women from many different units. This created a host of problems. The 1544th was driving the roads of Iraq primarily at night protecting U.S. contractor KBR, Inc. and fuel convoys, and the females of the other units were on different sleep cycles. “She just went right to work squashing problems and taking care of our Soldiers. Our Soldiers needed to get rest so they could focus on the mission,” Tuttle said.
“She is very thorough in everything she does. She always gives 100 percent,” said Sgt. 1st Class Britt Talley, the Illinois Army National Guard Recruiting and Retention Battalion’s resource NCO who served with Nussbaum on the Bilateral Embedded Staff Team (BEST) A12. The team deployed to Afghanistan from the fall of 2013 to the Spring of 2014 as a liaison team with our Polish allies. “(Major Nussbaum) takes care of everyone else first, before herself,” Talley said. “She will work whatever hours needed to ensure the Soldiers are taken care of.”
Nussbaum admitted that she sometimes refocused her “loftier” goals to take care of others. “I reminded myself that we join not just to see what we can achieve as individuals, but what we can do to better the organization and serve the Soldiers in it. I often realized that perhaps the best place for me to do that was right where I was at that moment.”
She said that the Soldiers deserved that sacrifice. “I’ve been so impressed with their knowledge, their enthusiasm, their endurance - and not just physical endurance. If you set high standards for them, they will meet and exceed them. They will amaze you,” Nussbaum said. “I wanted to be better for them. They earned that. We (as leaders) owe it to them.”
She is “just an amazing individual” with a “crazy amount of work ethic,” said Col. Kevin Little, the Illinois National Guard’s Director of Human Resources and Commander of the 404th Maneuver Enhancement Brigade.
“She gave me and other leaders the confidence that her work would be complete, thorough, clear, and most importantly, the confidence that the audience would understand the message or product being delivered,” Little said. “She emulates professionalism and creates an environment of smiles, learning, and critical thinking. She has the heart of a teacher and approached her subordinates, peers, and her leaders with products that require little to no explanation and could be implemented. She is a true professional and an example for all Soldiers, leaders, and staff.”
While Nussbaum worked extraordinarily hard throughout her military career to improve herself and her Soldiers, one thing she couldn’t change was her cheerful disposition. In Iraq one of her senior NCOs said she had to get “meaner.”
“He asked why I was so happy all the time. I tried for a full day not to smile. I just couldn’t do it,” she said. Once when 2nd Lt. Nussbaum and her Soldiers were engaged with the enemy, one of the NCOs overheard her laugh during the radio traffic. Later, he told her that “Either you are too dumb to know what was really going on or you’re a lot tougher than we thought.”
Her answer: “Yes.” At that point in her career, she was working hard to fill her knowledge gap – and, yes, she was and still is a lot tougher than people think.
Nussbaum said she was grateful for her second deployment to Afghanistan as a more seasoned officer a decade after the first deployment to Iraq. The first, she said, “was the wild, wild west the whole time” with danger on the roads, frequent mortar attacks on base, and concerns about the base being overrun. In Afghanistan, her mission didn’t have her out on the roads and the forward operating base was more secure at that time. “That second deployment allowed me to reflect.”
Her brother, Staff Sgt. John Nussbaum, deployed to Afghanistan in 2008 to 2009 with the 33rd Infantry Brigade Combat Team, another tough and challenging deployment. Elaine Nussbaum said her younger brother’s deployment helped her understand what the families of deployed Soldiers endure. “That was scary.”
Elaine and John Nussbaum have compared notes over two decades in the Army together. They have compared her experiences as an officer to his as an NCO, her experiences as a logistician to his as a combat arms Soldier, and both of their experiences in combat.
“We have spent the last 18 years since I enlisted sharing stories - mundane, funny, infuriating, and terrifying - seeking knowledge based on our different career paths, giving advice from a different perspective, and even commiserating at times,” John Nussbaum said.
“Between the two of us, we know what it's like to be enlisted, an officer, maneuver, support, and sustainment,” he added. “We learned different things, learned them in different ways, had different things asked of us, and had different spheres of influence. But together we found knowledge and counsel in those differences by looking to each other for advice about ‘what would the other side think?’ Or ‘how would they do this?’”
Staff Sgt. Nussbaum, who is seven years younger than his sister, was able to teach many of his Soldiers in the Cavalry “to appreciate the difficulties, nuance, and importance of the logistics world and the deceptively large influence it has on all aspects of the military” learned from his sister and Maj. Nussbaum absorbed a lot about reconnaissance, maneuver warfare, and operations from her brother.
“Between the two of us, we were lucky to have what I would consider the total Army experience,” John Nussbaum said. Together they learned “a fuller understanding of the military and a more commanding ability to accomplish our missions, to lead and care for our Soldiers, to be greater stewards of the profession, and to be more successful for our own sakes,” he added.
But the two people in Maj. Nussbaum’s family that influenced her the most never served in the military: her father, Michael, and her mother, Therese. “They were both hard-working and patriotic,” she said.
Both of the Nussbaum parents were proud of their children’s military service. Both parents had fathers who served in World War II and Therese’s brothers, Michael and Marty, were Vietnam veterans. “And both their kids deployed twice,” Elaine Nussbaum said.
Her father, who died in 2011, was an Eagle Scout who worked in local grocery store. He had a degree in history from the University of Iowa and was keenly interested in his daughter’s military experience, even if he was a bit “baffled” by the thought of his cheerful little girl driving big cargo trucks and leading convoys in Iraq.
“We watched all the old war movies and programs on the History Channel, and he took us to the Prairie Aviation Air Show every summer where we toured historical aircraft and first experienced that familiar – now comforting – ‘Army smell’ of canvas, metal, fuel, paint, damp, and dust. He taught me how to properly fold and respect the Flag, honoring those who served and continue to serve under it,” Nussbaum said.
Most who know the family compare Elaine Nussbaum to her mother. They attend Holy Trinity Catholic Church in Bloomington together each Sunday. Therese Nussbaum, an avid reader and fellow 4-H alum, spent over 40 years as a registered nurse who “famously never left work on time” – a comparative fact that drew laughter at her daughter’s retirement ceremony.
“She is the most thoughtful, caring person I know,” her daughter said. “Every year she took us to the local parades and ceremonies that commemorated the service of veterans like her father, uncles, brothers, nephews, and friends. She taught us to be dependable and prepared, and to respect those who serve and care for others. We learned the importance of hard work, service, and patriotism early on from both of our parents.”
Those who served with Maj. Nussbaum said she has another family, that of the Illinois Army National Guard and the 1544th Transportation Co.
“She is fiercely dedicated to the 1544th. She viewed that unit’s Soldiers as her kids,” said Lt. Col. (ret.) Rich Munyer, the Illinois National Guard’s Construction Facilities Management Officer, who commanded the 1544th Transportation Co. after its 2004-2005 deployment to Iraq and worked with Nussbaum for several years in the Illinois Army National Guard logistics office. “Elaine will forever be part of the 1544th.”
Nussbaum was a member of the 1544th Transportation Co. for 11 years and commanded the unit for three and a half years, from October 2007 until April 2011.
Nussbaum said now that her Army career is complete, she hopes to go back to her original plan to become a school teacher. Several Soldiers said they have learned from Nussbaum’s famous red pen on staff papers and other staff products, but, more importantly, from her coaching and mentoring.
“She was a great educator and had a way of passing on what she had learned to other Soldiers in a way most cannot,” Butler said. “As a commander, she empowered the NCOs and junior officers to lead from the front. She understood that people were not always going to do things 100 percent correct but pushed them to learn from their mistakes.”
Nussbaum also kept a hand in teaching throughout the years. For example, she tutored Camden’s children, Mackenzie and Chloe, for about seven years. Both graduated high school as National Honor Society students.
“She always wanted to teach. She always thought the military was a stopgap until she eventually became a school teacher,” Munyer said. “I hope that’s what she does. She’d be a good one. We had her for 20 years.”