Joni Mathews | Sun Prairie, WI
As kids, we were outside all of the time. In the summer we spent the majority of our time swimming, and in the winter it was sledding, skating, or building a snow fort. I remember climbing trees and having fun with the neighbor kids, using our imagination and playing all sorts of games.
By the time I was a teenager, though, I wanted to get off the rez as soon as possible and do something different. I hated driving a good distance just to get to a decent grocery store or shopping mall. Back then we had to drive all the way to Rhinelander or Wausau for Christmas shopping. I wanted to go to a big city where everything is close and there’s a lot to do. I had been introduced to Chicago and Washington, D.C. at a very young age and I was enamored of big city life.
I moved to Minneapolis within days of graduating from Lakeland Union High School in 1979. My mom jokes about when I left because she says I took everything I owned. My sister, Patty, who is four years older than me, moved to Minneapolis after she graduated. She got a job working for the FBI and I thought, ‘well, that’d be really cool to work there,’ because I, too, had an interest in criminal justice. I applied and got the job within weeks of graduating high school.
I really enjoyed my time working at the FBI, but around my second year of employment, I started to get bored. Every day seemed to be the same — transcribing recordings and typing reports, day in and day out. Our supervisor would hand us recordings from the investigators who investigated a crime and then narrate their report into a tape recorder. The reports were extremely interesting, but typing all day every day got to be boring and unchallenging.
I’m dating myself, but I worked in a large room full of stenographers, sitting by our typewriters with headphones in our ears. I remember thinking, ‘Man, I don’t want to do this. There’s got to be something better out there.’ I felt it was time to go to college, so I went to a library and did some research on the closest university that had an aviation degree. I wanted to get my pilot license.
I’ve always wanted to fly ever since I was little. My dad was fascinated by flying and I think that’s where I got my love of flight. He would take us to Chicago and we would sit under the runway watching the airplanes take off and land, and I thought that was just so cool. When I was growing up on the reservation, the planes would fly over and I would just stop what I was doing to look up at the sky. I wondered where they were going. What is it like up there? What can they see?
As I did my search, I found an aviation school in Florida, one in Oklahoma, and then I saw Grand Forks, North Dakota, which was close to home. Back then you didn’t go on college visits, you just applied and went. And that’s what I did. I took the ACT, got applied, and was accepted. My dad and mom drove me to North Dakota, a state I’d never been to, and my first thoughts were, ‘where are all the trees? It’s so flat! No lakes?’ But I wanted to get my degree, so I was dropped off at a dorm and began my studies.
During my sophomore year, I was deciding what electives to take. Since I was interested in the military, I thought I would take an ROTC class and see what it’s like. My dad had a big influence on my life and I’m pretty sure I joined ROTC because of him. Growing up, he was big in the American Legion. When I was a kid, we’d go to the various public events that involved his presence, celebrating Memorial Day, Veteran’s Day, etc. He would march in the parades and give speeches. I didn’t really get along with him back then, because I felt like he was directing me to do things, but actually he was guiding me in the right way. His name was Leonard (Buddy) Brown. I didn’t appreciate him like I should have.
Because my parents couldn’t afford my college tuition, I had to put myself through. Thankfully I saved my money while working for the FBI, but that money went pretty quick paying out-of-state tuition, flying fees, books, and all of the other expenses that go along with college.
After I completed my first ROTC class, I was offered the opportunity to apply for an ROTC scholarship and was lucky enough to be awarded one. All I had to do was give the Army six years of my life and I would get my commercial pilot license in both fixed and rotary wing. My professor at the time said, ‘If you take this scholarship, you’ll have to switch from flying airplanes to flying helicopters.’ I said, ‘Sure. I’ll learn how to fly a helicopter. I want to get my college degree.’ So, I signed on the dotted line, and six years turned into 36.
To get into the University of North Dakota (UND) and graduate, I had to do it all myself. Going off to college and then going into the Army was scary because I didn’t know anybody. I wanted to get my college degree and if this is what it took to do it, then I had to find it within me to make it happen.
I’m not really sure how I managed to accomplish the things I was able to accomplish because I didn’t have a lot of confidence. I always thought, ‘I can’t do this’ or ‘there’s no way I can pass this flying test.’ I didn’t think I could do any of the difficult things that came my way. But whether it was determination or drive, I must have had something in me.
To get the ROTC scholarship, I had to switch from flying airplanes to flying helicopters. I’ll never forget how cool it was to fly a helicopter compared to an airplane. I loved the fact that we could take off and land anywhere (within reason), fly low, and be able to stop on a dime. My helicopter instructor pilot at UND was also a pilot in the National Guard and served in Vietnam. I remember him teaching me how to fly just above the ground and how cool it was to turn left and right, up and down, fly with the contours of the earth or trees.
One of the emergency procedures we had to learn was to simulate an engine failure. My instructor would drop the collective — the flight controls that enable the helicopter to climb or descend — and we would sink to the ground at a rapid pace. We had to make a quick decision and figure out where to land safely. We made it a contest to see who could get closest to our identified landing spot or who had the smoothest landings.
While I was attending flight school, the Army assigned all future graduates to our next positions. I asked to be assigned at Fort Rucker as an instructor pilot. As luck would have it, I received my first choice, but I had to have 500 hours of flight experience before I could become an instructor pilot. To get that experience, I was assigned to a unit that was responsible for keeping track of the student pilots flying low level in areas where they had no communication. I was an ‘airborne air traffic controller’ who flew above them at a high altitude, keeping track of their whereabouts as they took off and landed in small landing zones.
I met my husband, Ric, while attending flight school. He was an air traffic controller assigned to one of the airfields where we practiced our landings and takeoffs. While my instructor flew with a student, I sat in the stage field house (where Ric worked) waiting for my turn to fly. While I waited, he approached me and we started talking. One thing turned into another, we got to know each other more, started dating, and then got married!
One of my most memorable jobs was as a helicopter maintenance platoon leader in Germany. I had just finished the UH-60 Blackhawk transition course and was immediately thrust into the maintenance test pilot course. This four-month course was one of the toughest courses I ever attended. Not only was I still learning how to be confident in the Blackhawk, I now had to know how to maintain it and then lead maintainers. I was nervous to say the least. I learned a lot from my maintainers, not only the technical aspect of their job, but how hard they work to keep our helicopters flying. I learned a lot from my test pilots, too. One of my favorite memories happened after months of getting a helicopter back to flying condition, after sitting in the hangar for years. The test pilot let me be the first to pick it up off the ground; the entire company was on the ramp as we test-flew this ‘hangar queen’ and all cheered as we lifted off. It was such a great feeling.
During my 36-year military career, I spent 11 years on active duty as a helicopter pilot, flew numerous missions as part of Operation Provide Comfort, and then joined the Wisconsin National Guard. I held a lot of firsts during my career, but I attribute that to the dedicated soldiers who helped me be a better leader, as well as the support from my husband and daughters.
The Army never put me in a position I wasn’t ready for, even if I didn’t feel that way at the time. With each position, you’re always learning, from peers, subordinates, and leaders; learning from the good leaders as well as the not-so-good leaders; learning how to communicate, guide, mentor, train, and lead diverse groups. Some positions I was assigned to I took with excitement, but others — those I didn’t feel capable or qualified to serve in — I took with some hesitation and angst. That’s where my husband would come in and reassure me, building my confidence to know I can do this.
My husband, Ric, who was a noncommissioned officer (NCO) in the Army, provided me the enlisted perspective and reemphasized how important it is to understand our soldiers. He gave me so much advice as a brand new lieutenant and it helped shape me into the officer I am today. Our enlisted force makes up a large portion of our Wisconsin Guard, so I really wanted to make sure they were heard and taken care of. My daughters have also been very supportive of my career. They knew nothing but the Army growing up, with my ever-changing schedule, time away from home, and inability to make every important event. With the support of my family, I was able to focus on my job and being the best leader I could be.
Last April, I started a new job. I am the director of the Wisconsin Challenge Academy. I first became aware of the Challenge Academy when I was the battalion commander and deputy director of personnel for the Wisconsin Army National Guard. I heard my leaders talk about it and it intrigued me, so when I was invited to one of their graduations, I went.
I’ll never forget my first experience with this program’s graduation ceremony. I attended with other senior leaders; we all sat in front on a gym floor of a high school, surrounded by the graduates’ families and friends who were sitting in the bleachers. As the graduates marched into the gym, the space erupted in cheers, clapping, hooting, and hollering. I could feel the pride in the room, not only from the folks in the bleachers, but from the graduates. Then I heard the honor graduate tell their story, where they came from, what their life was like at the Academy, all the things they had learned, and the person they had become.
The ceremony brought tears to my eyes from start to finish. I wanted to be more involved, so I participated in their ruck marches, their group runs, and of course their graduations. I got to talk to the students, hear their stories, and share mine. My hope was to give them hope, let them know there’s a big world out there with so many things they can do. I wanted to be a positive role model for them. I wanted them to know they can push through the hard times and become anything they set their mind to.
I think our focus as a nation needs to be on our youth right now to make sure that we help them as much as we can. We were all affected by COVID in one way or another, but I feel our young people in particular were affected. Due to the educational challenges, many of them got behind in school and deeper into the use of social media and electronics, which to me can have their own damaging effects. I think my hope for the country is just to make sure we help our younger generations succeed, help them get on to the workforce or to college or whatever their aspiration or goal may be.
Since serving as Challenge Academy director, many of them have told me, ‘This place has saved my life. You’ve saved my life. Before I came here, I never would’ve thought about going on to college. Now, I’ve already applied to a technical college and I’m going to do this.’
Recently, I went back to Lac du Flambeau, the reservation where I was raised. I was part of a ceremony in which the Lac du Flambeau Veterans Center was named the Brig. Gen. Joni Brown Mathews Veterans Center in honor of my work. The honor was humbling and made me proud to represent my community. I realize now that my childhood, my beginning, helped me become who I am. I am grateful to have this home to come home to. I am grateful to be able to give back.
If I have one regret in life, it’s not appreciating my parents and grandparents as much as I could have growing up; that I didn’t learn more about their lives. Both of my grandfathers were boarding school survivors, but despite being forced to assimilate, my grandfather never stopped speaking Ojibwe and shared both the language and cultural knowledge with my dad. He would tell me about when he would drive to town with his dad and his friends and speak only Ojibwe.
Sometimes my dad shared stories, but I wish I would have asked him more questions. I regret not asking him to teach me our language and traditions and I regret not asking more about his life growing up. Our history and teachings are not written in books but passed down through stories. As I’ve gotten older, I’ve continued learning and asking elders the questions I wish I would have asked him. I’ve encouraged my daughters to do the same so they can learn and eventually pass these stories down to their children and grandchildren.