PEORIA, Ill. --
Airman 1st Class Tanya Brown was a fulltime everything three years ago - beautician, livestock farmer, college student, wife, and mother to four children. Then, not being one to shy away from a challenge, the 35-year-old decided to join the Air National Guard.
Brown along the way earned a 94 percent technical school class average, the Thunderbolt Certificate for Fitness Excellence, the Small Arms Expert Marksmanship Ribbon and a 98.5 percent physical fitness score.
What possessed the 182nd Force Support Squadron Airman to add military service to her hectic life, and how did she excel at it? It all started with a haircut.
Brown was working as cosmologist and esthetician when an Army sergeant came into the spa needing a last-minute haircut before reporting for duty. Brown assisted him. Recruiters had recently visited her oldest daughter's high school, so Brown started asking questions about the armed forces. The sergeant asked her if she had ever considered enlisting.
Brown said she was too old for that. The sergeant disagreed, and it made her begin to wonder.
She continued picking his brain during monthly haircuts until he finally offered to connect her with recruiters. One of them was Tech. Sgt. Stephen Graves from the Illinois Air National Guard's 182nd Airlift Wing in Peoria.
Graves said the normal age coming through his office was 17 to 23, so Brown was not his typical customer. The cutoff age for new enlistees was 40.
"It was unusual," Graves said, "so we try to let [older enlistees] know that 'Okay, this is what you're going to get into. You're going to be held to the same requirements,' and she was all for it.
"One thing led to another and I ended up coming over here and looking at everything, and I enlisted," Brown said. "I didn't even tell my family and friends for a while. My husband knew when I went and bought the running shoes."
Brown had not run in 15 years, so she started training in order to conquer the Air Force's basic military training in San Antonio.
"So, I went and bought a pair of running shoes, and he looked at me and goes, 'You're serious about this, aren't you?'" she said.
However, that was not the obvious obstacle Brown anticipated.
"I was nervous about going to basic and tech school at such an age difference," she said.
She knew that she needed to blend in with girls up to half her age.
"I just kind of sit back and just let people be who they are and just try to become part of the group," Brown said.
However, she did not hesitate to administer some wisdom when attitude problems flared up in the dormitory.
"I wasn't being mean or anything, but I would take them aside and I'd say, 'Hey, there's a better way to deal with something like this,'" Brown said. "And then after a while they'd start coming to me if they were sick. It was funny. They'd start coming to me like I was a nurse or something, or their mom."
Brown called her smile her biggest challenge in basic military training.
"You know, it was hard for me because I've been in the public working all the time around people and learning how to smile and customer service, and all that," Brown said. "Well, when I went down to basic, you can't smile no more. There's a military bearing. And that was my biggest thing, getting yelled at for that."
Brown passed her first, two-week physical fitness evaluation and kept pushing hard through to see how far she could go.
She earned the second-highest award for fitness there at age 36 with 57 sit ups, 43 pushups, two pull ups and 1.5 mile run time of 11 minutes, 28 seconds.
Brown then attended the Services Apprentice Course in Fort Lee, Va., after a short visit home. She said that she chose the career field because she already had a background in customer service and food preparation, having held a food sanitation license for more than 10 years. She also saw the career's mortuary affairs training as good knowledge to apply to her nursing studies.
Brown returned home after graduating technical training school in 2014 and began work with the force support squadron. She said that she is still happy she enlisted.
"I love it. I think everybody around here's pretty cool," Brown said.
Master Sgt. Sarah Markham, services superintendent at the 182nd Force Support Squadron, said that the feeling is mutual.
"Tanya Brown is one of the hardest working, self-motivated, energetic Airmen I've ever encountered throughout my career," Markham said. "She has proved to be an asset to the force support squadron and is always on point with the mission at hand."
The unit invited Brown to join its search and recovery team upon her recent completion of her 5-level career development course. She started back up with her studies at Richland Community College, where she is pursuing an Associates of Science using the 100 percent paid tuition grant and the GI Bill offered by the Illinois National Guard.
Brown said that no one excuse could keep a person from serving, if they want to.
"I say, if you want to do it, do it," Brown said. "Doesn't matter what age you are. If you're determined to do it, you set your mind to it, you can do it. No matter what."