This Independence Day, as you are flipping burgers on the grill or enjoying a day at the lake, be sure to remember all those who have given of themselves to help protect our independence. There are people among us who sacrifice to defend our country and stand ready to help no matter the need, whether going overseas or stepping in to assist with disaster recovery.
Stephanie Thielges has been in the North Dakota National Guard for 21 years. Brent Freese has been in the North Dakota National Guard for 15 years. Both are parishioners here at Ascension, and they both share a love for serving their countries in this capacity.
“I love being a part of something bigger than myself,” Stephanie says. “I love helping people and serving our communities.”
“I think of that quote from JFK, ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,’” Brent says. “Someone once told me, ‘This isn’t just a job. You are there because you are providing a service. You doing a job on behalf of someone else.’”
Stephanie is a Sergeant First Class and serves as a Military Police Specialist. She also works for the guard as her full-time career. Stephanie appreciates all of the Catholic priests who also serve in the military, as it allows her to sometimes attend Mass during her mandatory training. Catholic priests are not very common in the military.
At Ascension, Stephanie serves as a substitute catechist. In past years, she has been a regular catechist, but her schedule this year did not allow for that. She knows what it means to give her time to our country and parish.
“The military has taught me so much about myself and the leader I want to be in this world and for my daughters to look up to,” Stephanie says.
Having originally joined the military to have her college tuition paid, Stephanie has stuck with it for many other reasons. She has been there to help when called, including flooding in 2009 and 2011, civil unrest, and the COVID-19 pandemic response. Stephanie has also been deployed twice to Iraq and once to Afghanistan. She volunteered to go to Iraq in 2004 and 2005.
“I loved seeing and helping all the people there,” Stephanie says. “We dropped off backpacks and school supplies to help start up an all-girls school which, at that time, was huge for them. We handed out new shoes and clothes to help Iraqi citizens get a better life. It was very humbling and rewarding at the same time.”
Brent is a Chief Warrant Officer 4. He also works full-time for the guard. He has always worked in aviation as an aviation maintenance officer and a helicopter pilot.
“I always wanted to fly helicopters,” Brent says. “But flying helicopters is expensive. I realized if I joined the guard, that the military would pay for it.”
Brent was deployed to Kosovo for nine months in 2014. At Ascension, he also gives of his time as a lector and a member of the Knights of Columbus and the Stewardship Committee.
Looking back on his days at Basic Training, Brent appreciated that Sunday Mass was the one “normal” thing they were allowed to do. He thinks back to his time in Kosovo, where a unit from Poland had a Catholic priest serving with them.
“It was the coolest thing,” Brent says. “The priest spoke some English. He did Mass, some in English and some in Polish. I could participate in Mass even though I didn’t always know what he was saying.”
While Brent realizes he’s had to give up free time and some freedoms to serve our country, he enjoys being in the military.
“My wife, Carmen, had to plan a wedding on her own while I was gone,” he says. “I get paid to fly helicopters — not many people get to do something as awesome as I do. Not everyone gets to have fun at work. There are many cool things that I get to do that others don’t.”
Stephanie and Brent are both thankful to have the opportunity to serve.
“It never fails to amaze me the random occasions that someone says, ‘Thank you for your service,’” Brent says. “Sometimes, the military gets a bad rap. It’s always good to know that people feel appreciative.”