Growing up in rural Elk County, Deborah L. Wilkins saw joining the military as an opportunity to serve the nation and explore the world, which would open doors to a great career.
“I was just a small town girl who got to get out and see the world,” said Wilkins, 48, a former Ligonier resident who moved to Upper Tyrone Township six years ago to fulfill a longtime dream of operating a dog kennel. She runs Double Hydrant Bed & Biscuits, just across Jacobs Creek from Westmoreland County.
Not one to shy away from challenges, Wilkins joined the Marine Corps as a motor transport operator about six months after graduating from Ridgway Area High School.
What she got in almost 30 years of military service was several deployments around the world — Afghanistan, Germany, Iraq, Kuwait, Okinawa, the Philippines and Puerto Rico — and a family with her husband, Stephen, whom she met while both were serving in the Marines.
She has been deployed in support of Operation Iraqi Freedom and Operation Enduring Freedom — earning both the Bronze Star and Combat Action Badge.
For her service to the state and nation, Wilkins, a sergeant major in the Pennsylvania Army National Guard, was one of 16 Pennsylvania women recognized recently at the Fourth annual Female Veterans Day ceremony in Harrisburg by Gov. Tom Wolf and the state Department of Military and Veterans Affairs. The ceremony occurred in March during a celebration of Women’s History Month.
“I was surprised. I was honored. At first, I thought it was a celebration of all women (in Pennsylvania) in the military,” Wilkins said.
Wilkins was among about 200 women who were nominated this year for the recognition, said Megan Healey, a spokeswoman for the governor. A subcommittee reviewed the nominees and voted on the winners.
“Her resume was incredible,” Healey said, noting Wilkins’ wartime service in both Iraq and Afghanistan.
Wilkins is among more than 60,000 Pennsylvania female veterans who have served in the military, according to Pennsylvania Adjutant General Tony Carrelli.
The most rewarding part of her military service has been the “people I have served with … the families, the soldiers, the Marines, just the culture and communities I have been a part of,” Wilkins said.
When Wilkins joined the Marines in January 1990, she had anticipated being a “lifer” — lasting for 20 years.
The Defense Department, however, was reducing the size of the military in the late 1990s and she and her husband became “service limited” after 10 years in the Marines.
Wilkins was not ready to give up her life in the military. After leaving the Marines as a staff sergeant in 2000, she joined the Pennsylvania Army National Guard’s 28th Military Police Co., based in Johnstown.
After an extensive search for where to live, the couple selected Ligonier, when she joined the Army National Guard. In response to the terrorists attacks on Sept. 11, 2001, she was assigned security duty at the nuclear power station at Three Mile Island at Middletown.
When her MP unit was activated, she led a platoon of military police officers in Ramadi, a city in central Iraq, from June 2005 to June 2006. It was a time when the U.S. forces were fighting insurgents. There she earned the Bronze Star, given to a soldier who distinguishes themselves with an act of heroism or meritorious achievement in combat.
She remains humble about the achievement, and did not elaborate on the circumstances leading up to her award.
“We were getting hit so many times. Two vehicles were hit by IEDs (improvised explosive devices),” and her platoon sustained causalities, Wilkins said.
Her husband had been deployed in Mosul during part of that time, making them the only married couple in the National Guard at the same time, she said.
Their daughters, Anna and Kathryn, were youngsters.
“I was able to do it because I had a great family support system,” Wilkins said. “They (daughters) were always loved and we were able to maintain a strong household.”
In 2012, she was deployed to Afghanistan, but was there for only a short time when she broke her leg in a noncombat accident. She was sent home to recuperate, then deployed in Kuwait for all of 2018.
During her years of service, she was able to earn a college degree from the University of Pittsburgh at Greensburg, although she jokes it only took her 20 years as she studied while stationed in bases around the world.
As she closes in on 30 years of service, Wilkins said she is thinking about retiring from the military, but not “for a few years.”