Pvt. Tess Kliethermes, of High Ridge, says the National Guard has put her on a fast track for success in life. Kliethermes is a 2012 graduate of Northwest High School. (Bill Phelan photo)
FESTUS, Mo. - When considering higher education, college loans and heavy student debt did not sound like an appealing option to Tess P. Kliethermes, of High Ridge, a recent graduate of Northwest High School.
"Debts and loans were not something I wanted to get into at all," said the 18-year-old.
So as a junior, Kliethermes sought out a fellow student who had enlisted in the Missouri Army National Guard and asked him about the experience.
"After that I spoke to a recruiter about the Guard's college tuition benefits and ended up enlisting in November 2011," she said.
Kliethermes' decision to join the military was applauded by her father, an Army veteran. Her mother, however, was not so keen on the idea.
"My mom didn't want me to mess with the military at all," Kliethermes said. "She wanted me to go straight to college."
Like many Missouri National Guard recruits, Kliethermes got an introduction to military life in the Guard's Recruit Sustainment Program at the Festus armory. The program provides enlistees with the basics of Army drill and protocol before they attend basic training, thus making basic less stressful.
"RSP was a tremendous help," said Kliethermes. "The recruits that didn't go through the program got yelled at a lot by the drill sergeants. I would recommend Recruit Sustainment to anyone because it gave me more confidence than other recruits. It provides a foundation for basic training."
Over a five month period last summer, Kliethermes managed to complete Army basic combat training as well as advanced individual training at Fort Leonard Wood. She chose to be a chemical, biological, radiological and nuclear specialist and was assigned to the Guard's 3175th Chemical Company, headquartered in Bridgeton.
With college tuition no longer an issue, Pvt. Kliethermes is looking forward to a bright future, perhaps in the medical field.
"I start college in the spring," she said proudly. "I'm thinking about going to medical school and possibly becoming an Army medic or an emergency room doctor. Maybe I'll go full time National Guard; I'm still weighing all my options."
Last weekend, Pvt. Kliethermes reached another military milestone, attending her final RSP drill in Festus, not as a recruit, but as a United States Soldier,
"It's odd, because even though there are recruits here older than me I feel older," she said. "I think it's the experience of going through basic training and advanced training. It's an experience I will never forget."
And what was once a source of great concern for her mother is now a source of pride.
"Because of her obligations at work my mom couldn't attend my graduations from basic training or advanced training, so the first time she saw me in my uniform was when I got back home," Kliethermes said. "She cried because she was so proud of me, which made me cry as well. Basically my mom is now happy because I'm happy."
Asked if she had any regrets about enlisting in the National Guard, Kliethermes could think of only one.
"I wish I could have joined sooner," she said smiling.
Kliethermes said her decision to enlist in the National Guard has also earned her new respect from her friends.
"At first they thought I was crazy," she said. "Now they call me 'Macho Tess.'"
Pvt. Kliethermes is the daughter of David L. and Sukja Kliethermes, of High Ridge, who also boast three other daughters, Mandy, Bianca and Hannah.
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Pvt. Tess Kliethermes, 18, of High Ridge, (at left) observes National Guard recruits disassemble M-16 rifles during a recent drill at the Festus National Guard armory. (Bill Phelan photo)