Illinois Airman Finds Her “Niche in Life”

Staff Sgt. Patricia Starks stands by a sample communications schematic set up near the Combat Readiness Training Center in Alpena, Mich., Aug. 9, 2016, for exercise Northern Strike 2016. Northern Strike 16 is a National Guard Bureau-sponsored exercise uniting approximately 5,000 Army, Air Force, Marine, and Special Forces service members from 20 states and three coalition countries during the first three weeks of August 2016 at the Camp Grayling Joint Maneuver Training Center and the Alpena Combat Readiness Training Center, both located in northern Michigan. The exercise strives to provide accessible, readiness-building opportunities for military units from all service branches to achieve and sustain proficiency in conducting mission command, air, sea, and ground maneuver integration, and the synchronization of fires in a joint, multinational, decisive action environment. In her full time career, Sparks works with Veterans Services at the University of Illinois, something she said she felt called to do after a deployment to Iraq several years ago. (Michigan National Guard photo by Senior Airman Ryan Zeski/Released)

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Story written by TSgt. Dan Heaton, 127th Wing Public Affairs

ALPENA, Mich.– Sitting in a room of computers, routing cables and whiteboards filled with seemingly indecipherable charts and schematics, Staff Sgt. Patricia Starks says communication is the key to a successful mission.

She brings that attitude not only to her duties as an engineer with the Peoria, Illinois-based 264th Combat Communications Squadron, but as a career services specialist at the Center for Veterans at the University of Illinois-Champagne, where she is both an employee and a graduate student.

“After I deployed to Iraq about six years ago, I worked with a number of people in Special Forces and I just saw the dedication and focus they brought to their mission,” she said. “Then, back home, as a student, I saw that sometimes my fellow veterans where a little lost on campus, they didn’t have the focus because they were outside of their environment.”

That realization led to Starks’ passion to try to serve as a communications link between higher education and military service for veterans. She served for a number of years as the president of a student-veterans organization at the University of Illinois, working with many others to help build up communications and partnerships.

“What the veterans are looking for is an SOP – a standard operating procedure checklist – on how to succeed in college and beyond,” she said. “Well, that doesn’t always exist. So we work to translate the college experience into terms and objectives that make sense for our veteran population.”

In the meantime, Starks continues to serve as a member of the Illinois Air National Guard, which found her spending two weeks in northern Michigan in August 2016 participating in Northern Strike, a multi-state exercise involving well in excess of 5,000 military personnel. Her job is to provide communications infrastructure support to the exercise.

“Without her, planes don’t fly and bombs don’t drop,” said Master Sgt. Alan Rosenberg, her supervisor in the 264th. “She keeps all these lines of communication open.”

After the exercise is over, Starks will resume working on a master’s degree in social work at U-I to further enhance her ability to work with the veterans-in-transition community.

“I just found my niche in life and I love it,” she said.

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