ORCHARD COMBAT TRAINING CENTER, Idaho -- As a college student, Idaho Army National Guard Sgt. Melissa Baney was interested in getting a doctoral degree in history and becoming a college professor. While interviewing female veterans for a project, she had a revelation that changed both her professional and personal lives.

"I thought, 'Why spend my career interviewing people who do these type of things when I can just do them myself?'"

Baney decided to do those types of things in the U.S. Army. In 2011, she joined the Army to attend the program's officer candidate school. In addition to providing a path towards commissioning, her enlistment also included a student loan repayment plan. She had already graduated from Boise State University with a degree in history.

LEARNING TO FLY

However, Baney was injured in OCS and didn't complete the program. Instead, she became a 15W unmanned aircraft systems operator. She initially flew the Hunter unmanned aircraft and is currently certified to fly the Shadow.

After three years, Baney decided to get out of the Army. In 2016, she began law school at Concordia University of School of Law in Boise. She enlisted into the Idaho Army National Guard to help pay for law school.

"I thought it would be a good way to have a job and not be gone from school all the time," she said.

In May, she will graduate with her Juris Doctorate and plans to practice family law in Boise.

"I like the flexibility of being a part of the Army and getting to have a civilian life and continue my education," she said.

Baney said she grew up wanting to be an attorney like her stepdad. After her time in the Army, she said she felt like she had the confidence to know she can do anything and she turned her focus on becoming a lawyer.

"I knew I wanted to go to law school," she said. "After I left active duty, I decided to just commit and do it."

Baney also balances her military career and education with her role as a single mother. She has a four-year-old son, Weston.

"I'm really lucky because I have a lot of family support," she said. "They know this is best thing for our future."

"IT PUSHES YOU MENTALLY"

She will graduate debt-free due to the Post 9/11 GI Bill benefits she received while on active duty. She admits that while Army training isn't always the most fun, being able to graduate law school debt-free makes it worth it.

In addition to being able to attend law school while serving in the Idaho Army National Guard, Baney likes the continuity and cohesiveness she finds in her unit, D Company, 116th Brigade Engineer Battalion, compared to active duty units. D Company provides military intelligence support to the 116th Cavalry Brigade Combat Team, the state's largest National Guard unit.

"You get to stay with the same people year after year, which is awesome," she said.

As a 15W, Baney plans and analyzes flight missions; performs preflight, in-flight and post-flight checks and procedures on the Shadow; and assists in launching and recovering the air frame from the runway.
Footage from her Shadow is fed to the brigade's headquarters to conduct air reconnaissance, surveillance and targeting and acquisition missions.

"It takes a lot of intellect," she said. "You can't just sit there and plug numbers. It pushes you mentally."

During a mission, which can last up to nine hours, one crewmember flies the aircraft while the other controls the camera. Crewmembers earn flight wings and have to complete annual requirements to maintain their proficiency.