Lt. Col. Monica Burnhauser’s life almost took a different turn when she was 8 years old.
Her father, who was in the military, had just died and her mother was contemplating moving closer to relatives in Germany.
Her mother instead stayed in Texas and Burnhauser later enlisted in the Texas Army National Guard, beginning her active duty Army career in 1989.
“My mother could have easily decided to move back to Germany and be with that network,” Burnhauser said. “If she would have done that, I wouldn’t be sitting here today. In the German army, I would not be given this opportunity like I am now.”
A week ago, Burnhauser took over as commander of the 203rd Brigade Support Battalion, 3rd Heavy Brigade Combat Team, 3rd Infantry Division at Fort Benning. She is only the second woman to lead the battalion of more than 500 soldiers since Lt. Col. Catherine L. Cook from 2001-2003.
Burnhauser, 44, came to Fort Benning after spending the last year in England working with the British Brigade.
At Benning, she will direct four companies that include administration, support soldiers of truck drivers, maintenance support and a company of medics.
To keep the battalion ready and prepared for the next possible deployment, her week is filled with physical exercises, workouts and updating equipment.
“Every day, five days a week we do fitness training, whole body workouts,” she said during a break in training Friday.
When the brigade returned last year, many went on block leave. “Now we are resetting the entire brigade, part of that to get soldiers back to the fitness they should be at,” she said. “The majority are there. It’s just a matter of maintaining it.”
Throughout her career, Burnhauser said her focus always has been with the soldiers.
“I was told at an early age that if you take care of the soldiers, they will take care of you,” Burnhauser said.
Weapons are important in war but soldiers are where decisions are made, she said. “We can have the best technology, but the soldier makes it happen.”
On a wall in her office hangs a framed quote from former Chinese leader and military mastermind Mao Tse-Tung: “Weapons are an important factor in war, but not the decisive one; it is man and not materials that counts.”
Soldiers at the battalion are committed. Many arrive sometime before 6 a.m. and stay late in the evening. “They know what work has to be done and they will work hard for you as long as you take care of them,” she said,
It will take about a year for the battalion’s many pieces of equipment to be upgraded.
“There is just a lot of that going on,” Burnhauser said. “The Army as a whole is working to reset this brigade to fight again. You always want more time, but we are ready if we had to deploy next week, next month. We would do it and we could do it.”
Although her father was in the U.S. Air Force and her grandfather was enlisted in the German Army during World War II, Burnhauser said she recalls the “Ballad of the Green Berets” and the news flash of Vietnam War as influences on her joining the Army. “Those two memories stuck in my mind,” she said.
She was 8 years old when her father, Lawrence Peterson, died in his 40s. She’s very grateful her mother, Monika, decided to remain in Texas.
After finishing high school in Austin, Texas, she went to Sam Houston State University in Huntsville and earned a degree in criminal justice. She thought she wanted to be in the military police but changed her mind after being told it included a lot of paperwork.
“I decided not to go into the MPs,” she said.
In 1989, her first duty station was an Air Defense Officer with the Patriot Missile System in Germany. Throughout her career, she also has been deployed to Saudia Arabia, Kuwait and Afghanistan.
She is married to Wayne Burnhauser and has a stepson. Burnhauser is eligible to retire but said she plans to continue serving as long as it is still fun.
“Right now, it is still fun,” she said smiling.