Joane “Jonie” Mathews, a member of the Lac du Flambeau Band of Lake Superior Chippewa Indians, was born and raised in Lac du Flambeau and when she was younger, her mother, Jeanne Brown, who still lives in Lac du Flambeau, thought she might be a teacher.
Mathews, a colonel in the Wisconsin Army National Guard, made Wisconsin history last month when she formally took command of the 64th Troop Command, based in Madison.
Brown, who by her own admission doesn’t say too much but is very proud of her daughter, said it looked like teaching might be the direction her daughter would take.
“When she was young, every time we had a family gathering or anything like that she’d be gathering up all the little kids and organizing things for them to do,” she said. “I just thought she’d have something to do with teaching.”
“I was always attracted to kids and I wanted to be a teacher, “Mathews said. “A kindergarten teacher, specifically.”
Mathews said that all changed about the time she was a senior at LUHS.
“I was kind of rebellious,” she said. I just wanted to move out of small town Lac du Flambeau and move into the big city.”
She said she didn’t want to have anything more to do with school but stayed with it and a week after her graduation from LUHS in 1979 at the age of 17, she packed up and moved to Minneapolis.
There, she lived with her sister, who was working for the FBI at the time and Mathews herself got a job with the FBI as a clerk typist.
“Working for the federal government opened my eyes on really what’s out there in the world,” she said. “I got to go down to Puerto Rico because they needed a clerk typist for a big mission that was going on there.”
Her two years with the FBI really made Mathews, who also was interested in flying as a young girl, look even beyond the big city of Minneapolis.
“Being up north, you see all these sea planes or four seaters flying overhead,” she said. “I would always think, ‘Boy, what are they doing up there and where are they going?’”
Brown said her daughter looked up to her father, Leonard “Buddy” Brown, who had been a paratrooper in the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne during his two year stint in the military in the 1950s.
“It was the whole package with my dad,” Mathews said. “He was such a great leader, a great public speaker and he just had that presence when he’d walk into a room. He was awesome.”
Her dad also liked to fly.
“Every time we traveled, he wanted to fly,” she said.
She said her father’s love for flying probably was passed on to her and that helped her decide what to do next.
“When I was in Minneapolis I decided to go for an aviation degree,” she said.
She did a search to find the university closest to home that would get her that degree, the University of North Dakota at Grand Forks.
“It turned out that it had the number one aviation department anywhere,” she said.
She received a Bachelor of Arts Degree in aviation administration at the university. Her focus at that time was on airplanes because, she said, that’s what she used to see flying overhead when she was younger in Lac du Flambeau.
“We used to go up to North Dakota whenever we could, just to watch her fly,” Brown said.
Mathews said she paid for her education at the University of Grand Forks herself because her parents couldn’t afford to help.
There were times, however, things got tough and she remembers one time in particular, in her second year at Grand Forks, she had to ask for help.
“I had to ask for money and it just killed me,” she said. “I was crying and I told them I need $50 and I will never, ever forget that.”
It’s one of those things she remembers because she also remembers wanting to get through the whole four years on her own.
“But I couldn’t,” she said. “There was a month I was just really short and I had to call my mom and she sent me the money right away.”
Mathews had also, during this time, enrolled in a class in the Reserve Officer Training Course (ROTC).
“I was interested in the Army because my dad, my uncle and my cousin all served in the military,” she said. “So, I took an ROTC class to see what it’s like.”
In the fall of her sophomore year, Mathews, because of her involvement with the ROTC, received a letter from the Army.
“They sent me a letter that said I was eligible to receive an ROTC scholarship,” she said.
Because of her financial situation at the time, and what an ROTC scholarship could offer in the way of paying her tuition and flying fees, she decided to apply for the scholarship.
The caveat was she would have to learn to fly helicopters, something with which she didn’t have a problem.
“It was another opportunity to learn something new,” she said.
Accepted into the ROTC program, the final two years of her education at Grand Forks was paid.
“That’s how I ended up coming into the Army,” she said. “After I graduated from Grand Forks, I went active duty.”
A newly-minted second lieutenant in the U.S. Army in 1986 with ratings as both a fixed wing aircraft and a helicopter pilot, she still had to attend flight school at the Army’s Aviation Flight School at Ft. Rucker, Ala.
Once she completed her flight training at Ft. Rucker, she was as an instructor pilot and platoon commander.
It was during this time Mathews became qualified in the UH-60 Blackhawk helicopter and took other courses, such as the maintenance test pilot course.
“The maintenance test pilot course was probably the hardest course I’ve ever been to, “ she said. “I was just learning how to fly the Blackhawk and now they were asking me to fly it and maintain it.”
She said she took a lot of manuals home with her to study.
“I had to learn how the engine operates and all the electrical systems,” she said. “ I had to study my butt off.”
It was also during this time at Ft. Rucker that Mathews met her husband, Ric, who was an air traffic controller there.
Today, Ric works for the Department of Veterans Affairs.
Mathews moved with her husband from Ft. Rucker to Germany, where she served as, among other things, a maintenance platoon leader, company executive officer, and a company commander at different Army bases.
During her time in Germany, her helicopter unit was sent to a base in southeast Turkey.
From there, she flew numerous helicopter sorties during Operation Provide Comfort, the effort begun in April 1991, by the U.S. and some of its allies to provide humanitarian aid to the Kurdish population of northern Iraq following the end of The Gulf War.
Upon her return to the United States, Mathews was assigned to the aviation readiness division at Ft. Sheridan in Illinois.
She left the active duty Army and joined the Wisconsin Army National Guard in 1997 and has served in a variety command and staff assignments, including the state family program director and commander of the First Battalion, 147th Aviation in Madison.
Along the way, Mathews has also earned two master’s degrees, one in military management from California’s Touro University and the other in strategic studies from the United States Army War College in Carlisle, Penn.
She currently is the director of personnel for the Wisconsin Army National Guard, lives in Sun Prairie with Ric and their two daughters, Shannon and Lindsey.
As for her being the very first female brigade commander ever in the Wisconsin Army National Guard, Mathews said it’s a great feeling and for her, very humbling.
“There’s a lot of very quality people out there and I’m quite shocked that I was chosen,” she said. “I’m obviously very happy I was.”
She said she’s looking forward to working with a diverse group of units that do many different things, from public affairs to the 32nd Army Band to aviation units.
“Everybody loves to be there, they’re there for a reason and everybody loves their job,” she said.
Being in the military now for more than 25 years, Mathews has no problem identifying what it is that keeps her going.
“It’s interacting with people and making a difference and taking care of soldiers,” she said. “That’s a big part of my full-time job and it’s also a big a part of a brigade command.”
With everything she’s done to this point, Mathews was asked if the next step in rank, as a “one star” or brigadier general, is a possibility.
‘I’d like that to be,” she said. “I’ve done so many great things in my career so far and I’m very thankful.”
She said she didn’t think she’d ever make it to lieutenant colonel, let alone colonel.
“If I don’t ever pin on that star I’ll still be very happy,” Mathews said.
“She did it all on her own,” Jeanne Brown said.
Brian Jopek may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.