Lisa O’Donnell’s military career began at just seventeen years old. With the signature of her supportive parents, Lisa opted for the U.S. Army’s Split Training Option for the Army Reserves. The program allows individuals to enlist during their junior year of high school, with basic training taking place in the summer between junior and senior year. During senior year, students commit to one service weekend per month as reservists, then complete Advanced Individual Training (AIT) after graduation and begin serving. O’Donnell says she was looking for something to challenge her, as well as help to pay for future college.
Lisa remembers basic training and the physical and mental exhaustion it took to complete it. “You’re getting yelled at, and you have no idea what they’re talking about. Then you get done doing all the push-ups and get to your bunk, and you have to fill out this form for having dirty laundry, and it’s super detailed and proper terms like ‘blouse,’ and I’m just thinking, ‘What? I don’t have a blouse.’” These aspects of training might sound ridiculous, but Lisa cites the importance of this training that taught her to listen and pay attention to details in stressful situations, as well as adjusting to military language and terminology. Great bunkmates also made the training worthwhile, and O’Donnell keeps in contact with one of her basic training mates.
After high school graduation, Lisa went to college and served as a private in the Army Reserves for three years. Starting on track for the medical field, O’Donnell decided to switch her trajectory in her second year of college by applying to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point. She never thought she would consider attending West Point, but after a campus visit, Lisa decided to transfer. Four years later, Lisa graduated from West Point as a Lieutenant with a degree in systems engineering, optimizing organizations and processes to make them more efficient.
Once she graduated from West Point, Lisa went to Fort Novosel in Rucker, Alabama for 20 months of flight school and was then stationed in Germany for 2½ years. While stationed in Germany, she spent one full year in Iraq for a deployment, spending much of her time in Balad and northern Iraq. O’Donnell spent much of that time in the air flying the UH-60 Blackhawk, spending six to eight hours per day flying for four to five days per week when deployed. O’Donnell worked as a platoon leader in maintenance and flight companies, and later in operations.
One of the parts of her job she appreciated most was the people she worked with. While spending so much time flying combat missions, O’Donnell was part of small teams with only two pilots and two other crew members flying in one aircraft. Lisa grew close to her fellow soldiers and built lasting relationships with them. These tight-knit groups were brought even closer when put into threatening situations. Although she experienced some dangers, Lisa says she was blessed to feel safe during most of her time deployed.
After her tours in Iraq and Germany, Lisa attended the Captain’s Career Course for six months at Fort Novosel. She was stationed in Japan shortly after as a Company Commander and was responsible for leading soldiers and flying various VIP's across Japan. She flew high-ranking military officials from any branch of service, and practiced how her company would assist the Japanese government to respond to humanitarian events. Her day-to-day responsibilities included training, administrative work, and maintenance. O’Donnell says she was again blessed with a great team of people to work with. Following two years in Japan, Lisa completed a one-year deployment to Afghanistan as an individual augmentee, meaning she volunteered to deploy without the rest of her company and met up with a different group of military personnel once on site.
Another big move found O’Donnell stationed in New York City, serving as an Assistant Professor of Military Science for the ROTC program at St. John’s University in Queens, NY. Lisa found teaching very rewarding and remembers the cadets’ receptiveness and eagerness to learn. When she had completed 18 months of teaching, O’Donnell became a student again, this time in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. She completed Command and General Staff College there, and then spent three years as a Major outside of El Paso, TX. Team building was Lisa’s favorite part of military leadership, and she took great pride in her high-performing and close-knit El Paso teams.
Lisa returned to Fort Leavenworth, KS after her time in Texas and met her husband Kevin there. Newly married in December, Lisa has now spent 16 years in the Army. She currently serves as a Major but is soon to be promoted to Lieutenant Colonel. Lisa no longer flies as a pilot, but instead enjoys working as a Doctrine Writer for the Army. Military service doesn’t always mean flying aircraft or serving in the infantry. Almost any job in the military can be done in the civilian world, and there is great value in having a variety of skills and jobs that make the military self-sustainable. O’Donnell helps to edit and update Army publications, writes the podcast script for the podcast Breaking Doctrine, and is assisting with language and pronunciation for an audiobook.
Like her many deployments, moves, and returns, Lisa says her faith life has often ebbed and flowed as well. During deployments, Lisa was able to utilize some chaplain services but remembers the difficulty of not being able to enjoy things like communion for long periods of time. One helpful boost to her faith came from one of her superiors in Japan, who always kept a Bible on his desk. O’Donnell sent him an email one day and asked how he stayed grounded in his faith, especially through the various highs and lows of a military career. Lisa said, “He walked me through it one day at a time and told me to take small bites.” This advice helped her to remember to continuously feed her faith, even if the time or place only permitted for small portions. “During my Afghanistan deployment, I started prayer journaling, and it really helped me to get through the day-to-day.”
One of the most important aspects of faith is producing fruit, turning faith into action. O’Donnell says that throughout her military career, her biggest accomplishments or proudest moments have revolved around team building and the friendships she has made. “Half of my life has been in the military, so those relationships and people matter. At the end of the day, it’s about people and loving on them in a Christian manner. No matter what they believe, one of the biggest things you can do is love them in a Christ-like way. Let your faith shine through in your actions.”
Written by Natalie Lendt, 2023