By Starrla Cray
WINSTED, MN Encountering Typhoon Russ in Guam, riding on a float in the National Victory Celebration Parade in Washington, DC, fishing on the Yukon River in Alaska, playing basketball in England, recovering from flooding in Turkey . . .
Military life wasn’t always easy for Winsted’s Rose Heimerl, but it was never boring.
“I’ve been very blessed,” Heimerl said. “In my short time in the military, I’ve seen more of the world than many people see in a lifetime.”
Growing up on a dairy farm just outside of Winsted, Heimerl had planned to go to college to become a teacher. She hadn’t even considered the Air Force until a recruiter gave her a phone call one day.
“I thought, it doesn’t hurt to listen,” Heimerl recalled.
After meeting with the recruiter, she was ready to give the military a try.
Heimerl graduated from Holy Trinity in the spring of 1988, and celebrated her 18th birthday that August. About three months later, she was on her way to basic training.
“November 16. I’ll never forget the day,” she said.
She arrived at the base in Texas late that evening, but that didn’t stop the officers from putting everyone to work early the following day.
“I was thinking, ‘What did I get myself into?’” Heimerl said.
The next six weeks were filled with rules T-shirts were starched and folded with precision, and even socks had to be ironed.
“Pretty much all they’re trying to do is see if you can follow directions,” Heimerl explained. “They’re going to be in your face, yelling at you, but they’re breaking you down so they can build you back up.”
Fraternizing with the opposite sex was also strictly forbidden. One girl in Heimerl’s group was caught talking to a boy in the hallway, and was “recycled” back to a different group in a new location, where she had to repeat weeks of her basic training.
Heimerl said it was easy to spot the boys who were “recycled,” because their buzz cuts had grown out more than the others.
Girls could wear their hair long, but it had to be painstakingly tidy.
Heimerl remembers getting in trouble one day when her braid must have been out of place slightly. She had just sat down with a tray of food, when a training instructor singled her out and said her hair needed fixing and her uniform was too short.
“I wanted to say, ‘you’re the ones who gave [the uniform] to me,’ but I didn’t dare,” Heimerl said.
By the time she got her hair re-braided and got back to her seat, mealtime was over.
“I was so mad,” Heimerl said.
Basic training was tough, but Heimerl said it wasn’t a bad experience.
“I think it made me more responsible,” she said.
Seeing the world
After her training, Heimerl was able to spend a few weeks at home before heading to a base in Rome, NY. She served in the supply division, where “they don’t fly without supply.”
Operation Desert Storm and Operation Desert Shield kicked off later on, and Heimerl was sent to Guam.
“We were there over Christmas,” Heimerl said, adding that many of the men cried because they were away from their wives and children.
The group did their best to have fun despite challenging circumstances, and Heimerl said the guys became like big brothers to her.
“One time they threw me in a box and had me delivered to the other side of the building,” she recalled. “That was one of their practical jokes.”
Heimerl also remembers Typhoon Russ, which hit Guam in December 1990.
“We stayed in our rooms and taped our windows,” she said.
When she returned to the US, she attended the National Victory Celebration Parade in Washington, DC. The rest of the soldiers marched, but she was chosen to ride on a float with Miss USA, a boxer, an actor, and an Olympic athlete.
“Little kids were asking for our autographs,” she said. “I like to say that was my 15 minutes of glory.”
The next year of Heimerl’s active duty was spent at a base in Galena, AK. Located 350 miles northwest of Anchorage, the small city is only accessible by boat or plane.
“I got to fish on the Yukon River,” Heimerl said.
15 months in Turkey
Her next stop was Incirlik Air Base in Turkey.
“When I got off the plane, it was like taking a step back in time,” Heimerl said. One of the first things she noticed were the “toilets,” which were just holes in the ground. Fortunately, her base was equipped with plumbing.
“The roads were dirt, and the cows went right up to the houses,” she said.
Election season, along with tension between the Turkish and Kurdish people, intensified the experience.
Throughout her 15-month stay in Turkey, Heimerl made the best of every situation. She played intramural sports, and her girls’ basketball team (as well as the boys’ team) won the Mediterranean conference. Because of that, they had the opportunity to compete with other countries at Chicksands, a Royal Air Force station in England.
Eating was also enjoyable in Turkey. Heimerl especially loved Açma (a soft bread) and tava (a dish made with tomatoes, mushrooms, cheese, rice, and other ingredients).
“I do miss the food,” she said.
One thing she doesn’t miss, though, is flooding. A Turkish farmer had cemented off a drain nearby, because he didn’t want water gushing into his field. As a result, water came into the base.
“We were sandbagging for hours and hours and hours,” Heimerl said.
Although Heimerl worked hard in the military, she said other veterans have contributed far more than she had the opportunity to, and she is grateful for their efforts.
“I was lucky,” she said. “Some people had it far worse than I did.”
Coming back home
When she got back from Turkey, Heimerl was planning to go to Chicksands. However, that base was about to close, so she went to Grand Forks, ND instead.
She went back to Turkey another three months, and later did shorter stays in California, Florida, and Hawaii, but ultimately decided to stay closer to home and go into the reserves.
At that time, being a mother to her newborn son, Roman, became Heimerl’s priority.
Roman, 14, is now a student at Holy Trinity, and is involved in football and the Winsted Holding Activities that Unite People (WHAT UP) committee.
Heimerl is one of the WHAT UP founders, and also serves on the Winsted Fire Department, is vice commander of the American Legion in Winsted, is a member of the local VFW, and is a member of the Winsted Summer Festival committee.
She also volunteers with recess at Holy Trinity School, and is active in numerous programs and teaching opportunities at Holy Trinity Church.
“I try to help as much as I can where people need me,” she said. “I want to have a positive impact, and be a good role model for my son.”
Heimerl hopes to inspire youth to make a difference in the lives of others and to go after their dreams.
“In school, I was shy and quiet,” she said. “The military helped bring out my voice.”