BLACK RAPIDS, Alaska (Army News Service) -- Not many people would choose to spend 270 days away from their family in an extremely cold and harsh environment, but that's just what medic Sgt. Sarah Valentine does as an instructor at the Northern Warfare Training Center.

Valentine admits she has an understanding husband: he's also a medic. He and their German shepherd are always overjoyed to see her whenever she makes it home to Fort Wainwright, which is located several hours away by car.

And the school was happy to have her, she said, because it's hard to find qualified Soldiers willing to endure the tough terrain and the minus 50-degree weather at the Black Rapids Training Site.

"It's absolutely worth it," she said. "The reward is to see other Soldiers come here and succeed."

Valentine loves the challenge of being pushed to the edge and then figuring out what she can handle. The schoolhouse definitely does that, she said, not just for her, but for her students.

"Some of these students are absolutely miserable," she said. [The course teaches] people to bypass their own personal misery and … lead others to success."

Her favorite part of the assignment, she said, "is doing stuff that would just destroy other people." Many Soldiers, she has observed, don't know how much pain they can handle.

"I know this will sound egotistical, but I probably know better than you do what you can handle," she said. "I love seeing students get pushed to the breaking point and then breaking through it."

Now a year into her assignment, Valentine has sought out the most challenging activities, including a summit attempt of the 20,310-foot Mount Denali, the highest mountain in North America. Her team ascended 16,200 feet but didn't have a weather window to summit.

Asked who her No. 1 mentor is, Valentine cited her mom, who taught her to rely on herself.

"She was the most influential person in my life," she said.


Valentine offered a word of advice for students who want to succeed at the school.

"Forget about you," she said. "Eradicate the idea you're more important than the Soldier to your left or right. You need to look out for each other. You need to get back to the idea that we're one team."

For female students and instructors, it can be difficult, she said. A culture of male dominance still exists. Women have to "push themselves 20 times more than men just to be considered their equals," she said, though she believes the culture is becoming more accepting.

Sgt. Derrick Bruner, an instructor and an infantryman with 13 years in the Army, admitted that he was among those who were initially skeptical about the idea of women taking on roles traditionally filled by male Soldiers.

While he was on Valentine's Denali summit team, he said, his opinion changed "180 degrees.

"Sgt. Valentine taught me this always forward-thinking thing," he said. "It doesn't matter how you feel. Just suck it up, complain about it and keep driving on. So that's a lesson that I've learned from her, honestly. You know, this sucks. All right, what's next?"

Bruner said he has seen female students thrive in this unforgiving environment where men have often failed.

"I've been in the infantry working with males a long time and enjoy this change of working alongside females," he said. "It's really helped me get that 'women can't do this' mentality out of my head. I was completely wrong."

Sgt. Jessica Bartolotta, a culinary specialist, is one such student who thrived in the Cold Weather Leaders Training course. She arrived at the school with no illusions about the freezing conditions and misery she would face, and the course lived up to all her expectations.

What motivated her to complete it, she said, was simply "looking at the person to her left and right, and realizing we're all here doing same thing and that we'll get through this together."

Besides enduring the cold, Bartolotta, an Afghanistan veteran, said the most challenging aspect was sleeping outside, packed inside a cold tent with nine other Soldiers, going without a shower for six days.

Hank Dube, 90, a retired Soldier who lives nearby the training area, served as an instructor at the school for 25 years, beginning in the early 1960s. Women were not at the school when he was an instructor.

These days, he said, after having climbed Mount Denali twice with women, he knows well how hardy they can be, and he's glad they're finally attending and succeeding at the school.

(Follow David Vergun on Twitter: @vergunARNEWS)