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By Barbara Wilson, Illinois National Guard Public Affairs Office
The year was 1990 and a future Illinois National Guard member watched Operation Desert Shield/Desert Storm unfold on national television and was inspired to “do something that means something.”
“I had graduated high school and knew I wanted to go to college but didn’t know how I was going to pay for it because my parents couldn’t afford it,” said Command Sgt. Maj. Dena Ballowe of Carlinville, who retired as the Illinois National Guard’s top enlisted service member on Oct. 31 after 32 years of service in the Illinois Army National Guard. “I had moved to Indiana to live with my grandmother to see what Indiana had to offer.”
While living in Indiana, Ballowe watched Gen. (ret.) Norman ‘Stormin’ Norman’ Schwarzkopf, commander of U.S. Central Command, as he mapped out coalition forces’ efforts to force Saddam Hussein’s Iraqi forces from Kuwait.
“You can watch all the war movies you want, but when you watch a war unfold on television, that was the turning point. That inspired me,” Ballowe said. “I decided I want to go do that. I moved back to Illinois and saw an advertisement in the newspaper about 100 percent college tuition if you join the Illinois National Guard.”
Ballowe said she knew nothing about the National Guard but talked to a local recruiter.
“I had a great honest recruiter,” she said. “He told me there will be moments in the Army that will suck, but you’ll get through it, and you’ll be fine. He was right.”
Ballowe then talked to her mother, who was not sold on the idea of her daughter enlisting in the military.
“I took her to talk with the recruiter,” she said. “Afterward, she said ‘it’s not a bad deal’. So, I had mom’s approval.”
Ballowe enlisted as a material control account specialist, serving as a traditional National Guard Soldier with the 3637th Maintenance Company based in Springfield. Later she was hired as a military technician in the warehouse before moving to an accounting position in the U.S. Property and Fiscal Office.
“You see this throughout her career,” said Maj. Gen. Rich Neely, the Adjutant General of Illinois and Commander of the Illinois National Guard, who served as the officiant at Ballowe’s retirement ceremony Oct. 14. “She continually progressed to more complex and progressively challenging positions, each one more complex as she is developing her leadership skills.”
Ballowe spent much of her early career in the 3637th, rising to sergeant first class before transferring to the 232nd Combat Sustainment Support Battalion and pinning on master sergeant rank.
In 2005, Ballowe was selected as first sergeant of the 3637th Maintenance Company and hit the ground running.
“I had one drill as the unit’s first sergeant before we left to assist with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina” she said. “Then we were notified we had to transform the unit into a support maintenance company and recruit and fill the company with the positions we needed. And we also began our road to war training.”
“It was during that deployment Ballowe learned of the 2007 deployment to Iraq,” Neely said.
Once Ballowe returned from the Iraq deployment, she moved into financial services at Joint Forces Headquarters.
In 2012, Ballowe began taking distance learning courses through the Sergeants Major Academy, and at the same time completing classes for an associate degree in real estate. Typically, a two-year distance learning course, Ballowe completed the Sergeants Major Academy course work in one and one-half years, graduating in 2013, and again began gearing up for another deployment – this time to Kuwait with the 108th Sustainment Brigade (now the 34th Division Sustainment Brigade).
In 2016, Ballowe was promoted to Sergeant Major, Support Operations, 108th, followed by a selection in May 2017 as Command Sergeant Major, 232nd Combat Service Support Battalion, overseeing 1,100 Soldiers.
In Sept. 2018, Ballowe was selected to become the Command Sergeant Major, 6th Battalion, 54th Security Forces Assistance Brigade (SFAB), at Rock Island Arsenal, Rock Island, Illinois. In 2019, Neely selected Ballowe to serve as the first Illinois National Guard Command Senior Enlisted Leader.
“As an Air Force Adjutant General, I wanted an Army Command Sergeant Major,” he said. “When I brought her up to meet with me to talk about her in the position, she told me I had the wrong person. I knew I had the right person for the job.”
Neely said he gave her broad guidance for the position.
“I told her to build the position, take care of Soldiers and Airmen, and support me in all my different roles,” he said. “She did that very well. She did an extraordinary job representing me not only with state partners, but also on a national level. She worked with the Senior Enlisted Advisor for the Chief of the National Guard Bureau to develop the CSEL position.”
Neely said her representation was most impactful when meeting with eastern European military leaders.
“The noncommissioned officer corps is something they don’t yet understand,” he said. “We spent a lot of time at the table explaining how the U.S. military has a phenomenal NCO Corps and she was very impactful particularly as a female combat veteran CSEL. When young Soldiers ask how they can be successful, her leadership speaks to the successes she’s had throughout her career.”
Neely said retirement ceremonies are more about the family and their sacrifices than about the Soldier.
“Thirty-two years of deployments, temporary duty, training, drill weekends, and pop-up events – it all takes a lot of family to help with those commitments,” he said. “All of us who wear the uniform know we can’t do it without the support of the family, particularly when you have dual military members serving together.”
“I can’t thank my family enough,” she said. “Thank you for being my rock. When duty called, I was able to step away and I knew the household life would still carry on. It wasn’t always easy.”
Ballowe said there were times early in her career when she could have just walked away but, is thankful she chose to stick it out.
“My father passed away when I had been in basic training two weeks,” she said. “I was a daddy’s girl, and this gave me every reason to walk away from it. But I didn’t. Mom passed away about 4-5 years after, so early in my career, I had lost both of my parents. Every day, I hope I made them proud.”
Ballowe said the family extends to those outside the bloodlines.
“I was surrounded by amazing teams throughout the years,” she said. “It’s always been about the relationships with those people that made it worthwhile. These bonds are forever. You’re my brothers and sisters forever.”
Committed. Patient. Passionate. Fair. Those are words which have been used to describe the type of leader Ballowe was throughout her 32 years of service.
“She was a young noncommissioned officer ready to learn and committed to supporting the full-time force,” said Chief Warrant Officer 5 Thomas R. Black, State Command Chief Warrant Officer of the Illinois National Guard, who first met Ballowe when both were young, enlisted Soldiers around 1994. “Dena has a heart of gold. She cares for others and is always quick to put others before herself. She always made sure the needs of everybody were met whether they were civilian employees or Soldiers.”
Black said Ballowe has a great sense of humor.
“She was always able to come into a room and be able to connect with everyone,” he said. “That was the type of personality, leadership and camaraderie she brought to the work environment.”
Black said that never changed throughout the past 30 years.
“We were young sergeants together and grew up to master sergeants,” he said. “That’s when I turned my career to warrant officer. I tried to get her to do the same, but she found her niche as an NCO leader. It’s sad to see her move on but I’m happy to have been able to share 30 years in uniform with her.”
1st Sgt. Greg Hoffman, Construction Facility Management Office (CFMO) Resource Manager, who first met Ballowe in 2003 while administering a physical training test, said that Ballowe stands out above other people.
“I felt a connection with her when I realized she was a platoon sergeant for the 3637th Maintenance Company,” he said. “How she led the platoon and interacted with individual Soldiers solidified her as a leader. During the activation for Katrina, I watched her become the leader she was meant to be.”
Hoffman said he owes his own success to Ballowe.
“I didn’t think I wanted to become a first sergeant,” he said. “When she completed her time as a first sergeant, I knew I wanted to continue through the ranks. She inspired me to continue in my career.”
Chief Warrant Officer 4 Nicole Matteson, Deputy Finance Manager, U.S. Property and Fiscal Office, who met Ballowe more than 20 years ago, said Ballowe was passionate about her job and being a great Soldier.
“I remember when she was in USPFO and found out Illinois National Guard Soldiers weren’t getting the same benefits as their active-duty counterparts, just because of the way the National Guard issued orders, she took on the issue with National Guard Bureau as well as the Defense Finance and Accounting Service,” Matteson said. “She took on the issue with both entities and was able to correct the issue. It was that tenacity which made her a great leader. She had influence to make change and she was able to get changes made. She’s passionate about doing the right thing to take care of Soldiers.”
Matteson said that she and Ballowe are fellow Soldiers and coworkers, but also friends.
“She helped me grow as a leader and supervisor,” she said. “She convinced me there is more than one way to do things to ensure the job gets done and correctly. She’s a very humble person. She’s always passing the accolades down, giving credit where credit is due.”
Ballowe said she views herself as someone who is fair.
“I probably have more tolerance and lenience for younger Soldiers who make mistakes than older ones for sure,” she said. “We all were young and had to grow and learn from our mistakes.”
Ballowe said if something isn’t done up to par, there’s usually a driving reason behind it and it’s up to leaders to determine the underlying issue and help if possible.
“I try not to knee jerk the situation, but try to find out the reason,” she said. “You can’t just put a band-aid on the issue without resolving the underlying problem. But sometimes all that’s left is the discipline.”
Ballowe said she grew up seeing men in uniform, but not so much the women in her family.
“I had several uncles who were in the service,” she said. “I remember uncles coming in and out, maybe just stay a day or two before heading out to their next duty station.”
She thinks she, and her husband, Illinois Air National Guard Master Sgt. Donnie Ballowe, had some influence on other family members to serve in the military.
“Our son served in the U.S. Army on active duty,” she said. “We have a nephew in the Illinois Air National Guard plus two nephews who served in the Marines, a niece who served in the Illinois National Guard, and a nephew who served on active duty in the Army. I like to think those kids grew up seeing my husband and I in uniform and it influenced their service.”
In the 32 years in which Ballowe wore the cloth of her nation, the National Guard has undergone a major transformation.
“The biggest evolution for the National Guard during my career would have to be the transformation following the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001,” she said. “We became more operational with more intense training. The U.S. Army realized they needed all components, the active-duty forces, the National Guard, and the Reserve forces.”
Ballowe said the broadening of assignments in the National Guard also transformed the Illinois National Guard.
“Those Soldiers who want to challenge themselves in other positions have that mechanism to change units which makes more diverse leaders with a broader knowledge of the military,” she said.
Ballowe acknowledges military service is not a good fit for everyone. However, she would offer advice to those who are contemplating military service.
“Enlist. Give me four or six years,” she said. “Personally, I believe it’ll be the greatest experience of your life. You’ll experience things, people, places, and situations that only one percent of the population will experience. The experience will pay for itself and outweigh the bad moments.”
For someone who is already serving but is on the fence as to whether they should continue their service, Ballowe advises you to sit and talk about the pros and cons.
“Your family commitments must come first,” she said. “If you don’t have their support, you probably won’t be as happy and unable to give it 100 percent.”
Ballowe said at the end of the day, she will miss the people and experiences the most.
“We don’t always get it right on paper, but it’s the people who are all in, not wanting to see it fail,” she said. “You may be totally exhausted, but you’re still doing the mission.”
Being there when her country needed her was the most meaningful part of Ballowe’s service.
“The most meaningful part of my service to me was I was there when my country needed me,” she said. “It takes each one of us. I am thankful I had the drive and ability, the will, and the want to serve. I was proud to be part of the solution regardless of the mission. Someone there to help someone who can’t help themselves.”
Service doesn’t come without sacrifice Ballowe said.
“Sometimes service is a huge sacrifice,” she said, recounting a friend from the Nebraska National Guard who was killed in Iraq in 2004 when an improvised explosive device detonated near her convoy vehicle. “I lost a great friend from the Nebraska National Guard, Sergeant 1st Class Linda Tarango-Griess, to an IED. We went to the basic noncommissioned officer course together and scheduled or advanced noncommissioned officer course together. We were like sisters who met at our leadership courses.”
Ballowe said it’s important for service members to know that sacrifice doesn’t just happen to everyone, but it could happen to you.
“Her life was for something,” she said. “You have to decide if you want to be part of that.”
Ballowe said there’s a mental sacrifice also but asks that civilians not judge the military based on suicide rates.
“It’s not the easiest life out there,” she said.
Ballowe will continue serving the Illinois National Guard as a federal technician with the Construction Facility Management Office at Camp Lincoln in Springfield.
“No one tells you one of the hardest days in the military is the day you leave,” she said. “I’ll still be at Camp Lincoln at the CFMO because this would be a lot harder if I wasn’t still part of the organization.”
Ballowe said her military service had a huge impact on her life.
“I was a small-town kid who had the guts to join the military,” she said. “The military educated me, showed me the world, put me in contact with people from other countries and different cultures. It grew me as a person. It’s the best decision I’ve made. Thank God I had the guts to do it and stick it out.”