Wisconsin woman among first members of the U.S. Space Force

The new force's mission is to protect U.S. and allied interests in space. It is the first new branch of the military since the Air Force was created in 1947.

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In sunny Lompoc, California, near the Vandenberg Air Force Base, Julia Fensterwald spends her days at home, tracking orbital objects in space on a computer. The coastal breeze flows through her window as she watches for debris or foreign objects that might compromise the security of the nation's spatial assets. All the while, her two 5-year-old twin boys play beside her.

Right now, the Verona High School graduate is a captain in the Air Force. But next month, she will become one of the first members of the United States Space Force, the newest branch of the military.

It's a reality she could scarcely have imagined after her mother married a man from Verona and they moved from St. Petersburg, Russia, to Wisconsin when Fensterwald was just 11.

Attending school in a small town where they spoke a foreign language was a major adjustment. But she soon developed friends, learned to enjoy going for bike rides or sailing down a local creek on an inflatable raft.

While rushing to class one day in her junior year in high school, she saw a Marine Corps recruiter in the hallway.


"That just sparked my curiosity," she said. "I was, like, 'OK, the next time I see a recruiter here, I will go talk to them.'"

The next year she spoke to the recruiter and enlisted in the Army at the age of 17.

Serving in the military appealed to Fensterwald, especially because for men in Russia, military service is mandatory.

"It sounded really exciting to me," she said. "My dad was in the Russian army a long time ago, and my uncle was too, so I guess I just kind of wanted to go through the same thing that they did in a way."

She threw herself into her new career, which took her to Fort Leonard Wood in Missouri, Fort Sam in Texas and Fort Meyer in Virginia until she was deployed to Iraq from 2005 to 2006 and again from 2008 to 2009 as a mental health specialist. She helped fellow soldiers access treatment, which she found fulfilling.

"I would go to other tiny little outposts where I would assess the overall health of the unit and just see if anyone needed to talk or I'd encourage them to see if they could take a ride out to the main base to see a mental health professional," she said. "In order to entice people to not be scared of mental health, we would bring a bunch of frozen popsicles with us because it's so hot and everyone wants a popsicle."

After getting home from Iraq for the last time, she worked as a civilian with the Veterans of Foreign Wars but wasn't satisfied with life away from active duty.

"I was just like, 'This is not the life for me,'" she said. "I missed that sense of camaraderie and people actually caring about you after you clock out at the end of the day."


New frontiers

In 2013, Fensterwald joined the Air Force and was assigned to its Space Command. After President Donald Trump moved to centralize military space functions under a new military branch last year, the Space Command was redesignated the Space Force.

The new force's mission is to protect U.S. and allied interests in space. It is the first new branch of the military since the Air Force was created in 1947.

Over the next year, about 16,000 members of the Space Command and airmen in select space-related jobs will join Fensterwald as the first members of the new force.

Currently, Fensterwald is assigned to an Air Force unit called the 18th Space Control Squadron, which observes and analyzes objects in orbit like satellites used for GPS, weather and cellphones. GPS satellites help the military hit targets precisely and gather intelligence, detecting things like missile launches and are also used for communication and to collect data on the weather. The data Fensterwald's team produces is used by organizations around the world and is similar work to what she will be doing once she makes the official transfer to the USSF.

Fensterwald, 36, won't be tasked with any combat missions. If there ever was a war in space, the U.S. Space Command, a separate joint command that was established earlier this year, would be in charge of fighting, Joan Johnson-Freese, a space security expert at the U.S. Naval War College told National Public Radio.

Although not part of her formal training, Fensterwald has enjoyed immersing herself in the alternate universe version of her future depicted in the new Netflix comedy series, "Space Force." The show stars Steve Carell as a bumbling yet modestly competent general trying to get a new military force off the ground amid snickers from the other forces.

While not an accurate depiction of life in the Space Force, even she finds the humor in starting a new military force with a name that sounds like it came out of a 1950s comic book.

"It's awesome and hilarious. I think it's even more funny because I can relate," Fensterwald said. "I'm curious about how I'm going to feel about the Space Force because I'm going to be one of the first people in it, so we're going to be building it. It's going to give me a lot of pride and feeling like it is my baby once again, just like the Army was."


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