KANDAHAR AIRFIELD, Afghanistan -- More than two decades ago, Elizabeth Blackburn witnessed something no young child should ever have to experience: the death of a parent.

"When they fired off their rounds, my heart pounded; I was so frightened," said Elizabeth, recalling the 21 gun salute at her father's funeral.

She was 10 years old.

Soldiers in their dress uniforms, the bugler playing Taps and the folded flag left a lasting impression on the young Elizabeth; one that would lead her to enlist in the U.S. Army in 1998. Now 33, Blackburn is a master sergeant.

"What I love most about being a noncommissioned officer is training, leading and mentoring other Soldiers so they, too, can become the leaders the Army and the nation needs them to be," said Blackburn.

She credits her rapid rise through the enlisted ranks in part to her discipline, competence and willingness to seek out challenging assignments others shy away from.

"I've experienced so many foreign cultures and traveled to so many different countries over the course of my 15 years in the Army, and that has greatly enhanced my knowledge and enjoyment," she said.

That she has made the Army a fruitful career is a bit of a surprise to Elizabeth, since her original plan called for just one enlistment, then off to college.

"I never had any intention of staying in the Army beyond my initial enlistment until I met Sgt. Clarence Blackburn. He showed me what a difference a good NCO can make in a Soldier's life and how the Army can transform ordinary people into extraordinary leaders," she said.

Sgt. Clarence Blackburn went on to become Cpt. Clarence Blackburn, but not before becoming Elizabeth's husband.

"Meeting him was the most incredible day of my career and my life. He has encouraged me in countless ways, not just professionally, but personally too."

With her husband's support, Elizabeth earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in human resource management despite serving fulltime, participating in Army training and operations around the globe and fulfilling her most important job: mothering the couple's three children.

While Elizabeth is currently on deployment, serving as the Afghanistan Engineer District-South logistics non-commissioned officer in charge, Clarence tends to the daily needs of Harley, 14, Kaley, 9, and Zachary, 5.

This marks Elizabeth's third combat tour.

"At times it can be very difficult for deployed mothers, but having a husband I can rely on is very helpful. I am amazed by my husband's love for our family," Elizabeth said.

She cites her husband as her chief mentor.

"He has guided me through my military career and without him I'm not sure I would have achieved the accomplishments I have today."

Clarence Blackburn is promotable and slated to become a major soon and Elizabeth was promoted to master sergeant last month. Her goal is to become a command sergeant major as soon as viable, she said.

Elizabeth encourages young people to consider the military as an option for life after high school, she said.

"Naturally, I lean toward the Army, so when I mentor youth I do talk about the Army a lot, but I think there is a branch of service for nearly everybody and I encourage folks to explore all their options."

When she's home in Virginia, Elizabeth revels in family fun time with her three or four kids, depending on whether or not you count her husband as a kid, she said through a smile.

"Our family participates in soccer, basketball, swimming, tennis, volleyball and we love just hanging out with each other and our friends."

The Blackburn family has also participated in Habitat for Humanity and was selected by Wreaths across America to lie wreathes during ceremonies at Fort Bliss.

For a young woman who lost her father in childhood, family is her most cherished possession, Elizabeth said. The rewarding career, although important, comes second. Thanks to the love and support of her husband, she can have both, she said.