NANGARHAR PROVINCE, Afghanistan (August 21, 2012) -- In the Army, Staff Sgt. Rachel Baranek has found stability, purpose and an opportunity to serve her country and improve the lives of women in Afghanistan.

Baranek, a native of Springfield, Mo., joined the Army when she was 17. Now, more than nine years later, she is serving in her second tour in Afghanistan.

In her current role, Baranek is the noncommissioned officer in charge of the 1st Battalion, 12th Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 4th Infantry Division's battalion aid station at Forward Operating Base Bostick, which is located near the village of Narai in Naray district, Kunar province. FOB Bostick is one of the northern-most outposts in the volatile Kunar River Valley, and is situated along the border with Pakistan.

The 1st Bn., 12th Inf. Reg. is charged with training and mentoring Afghan National Security Forces who work to secure the region.

Baranek's role, in support of her unit's mission, includes training Afghan soldiers to perform emergency medical care in a combat environment. In fact, she often finds herself working side-by-side with those same Afghan medics when Afghan soldiers and civilians are brought into the clinic for treatment. Yet, this is not Baranek's only role.

She also serves as a Female Engagement Team leader. In this role she oversees a group of specially -selected and trained female U.S. soldiers who advise the battalion's leadership on how to consider and address Afghan women's issues. Additionally, when female interpreters are available, Baranek's engagement team goes on patrol, fully integrated with their infantry brethren in order to meet with influential Afghan women of the region.

While nine years of Army training and experience helped her develop professionally, family experience has helped to guide Baranek throughout her career and shaped her into the leader she is today.

"My (grandfather) was in the military," she said of her mentor, who retired at the rank of staff sergeant after a career that included combat tours in Vietnam and the first Gulf War. "He was in the Army for 21 1/2 years."

The first member of her family to serve since her grandfather, Baranek said many reasons led her to join the Army.

"I needed a change of pace, and didn't really have the desire to go to college at the time," she said, recalling her desire as a youth to get out and see the world. She cites her decision to join the Army as providing her with a solid foundation of values and morals that continue to guide her to a better life -- one that she might not have otherwise had.

She did not grow up in a privileged community, and for a period of time her family even experienced being homeless. Baranek says that the Army gave her great stability in her life; a sense of stability that she has come to rely on.

"Yes we move, we don't know where we're going to be a year from now; we don't know where we're going to be tomorrow," she said. "But I know I have a home." Furthermore, she knows that she has a job and is earning a pay check.

The Army is more than just a job, though, it's "the greatest job on Earth, and I'm still going to be able to help people every single day," Baranek said.

"I believe that being part of a bigger organization than myself, and representing something bigger than myself is my way of earning my freedom and my way of life, and that of my family," she said.

Like any good leaders she relies on her life experiences to inform how she influences and motivates those around her and cares for those she is responsible for.

"I have my blood family; then I have my brothers and sisters in arms," she said. Her desire to stay in the Army comes from "knowing that I can make a difference in their lives, knowing that they wouldn't have the same quality of life, quality of career without her."

Baranek speaks with enthusiasm about her pride in her career.

"I love the Army," she said. "I love it for everything that it is, and everything that it isn't. The Army has given me the opportunity to make something bigger of myself and be better than what I could've been."

Her Army career has helped place Baranek on a path. She said she hopes will lead to her ultimate goal: becoming the first female Sergeant Major of the Army.