At 17, Shawna Bleecker needed a little direction.
She wasn’t thinking about college and was eager for a summer adventure away from her small Montana hometown. So when a friend suggested she join the Army National Guard, she thought, “why not?”
Her whim of a decision turned out to be the best thing she has ever done, she said, spurring a 13-year career in the military that sent her around the world and developed values, discipline and compassion she continues to employ long after hanging up her military fatigues.
“I was part of something much bigger than myself,” she said. “It makes you feel so small in this world.”
Bleecker, a records management analyst at Denver Water, started out by serving one weekend a month and two weeks per year for the Army National Guard, continuing through college at the University of Montana.
Her family and friends were supportive and proud of her decision, though her mom had some trepidation. “She said, ‘Shawna, what if there’s a war?’”
But I thought, ‘oh there’s not going to be a war. We’re over them.’ There wasn’t much going on in 1995, but I was about to find out things were very different a decade later.”
Once she graduated with a journalism degree in 2003, she began working full time in logistics for the National Guard. In 2005, her battalion of 250 people was assigned to a year of service in Iraq, joining roughly 35,000 other military personnel at Balad Air Base, just north of Baghdad.
There, she continued her job maintaining records, documents and inventory. She reported lists of details to headquarters: how much water and food the base had; who could work and who was on leave; the status of trucks and ammunition.
It was hot, lonely and, with mortars being lobbed over the barricade each day, very scary.
“I don’t think there’s really anything that can prepare you for something like that,” she said. They regularly wore bulletproof vests and helmets, knew where all the concrete bunkers were around the base, and rarely stepped off site.
Despite the constant shelling, her unit returned to the United States with 100% of the people and equipment they had left with. It was an invaluable experience, but after 13 years of service, she was ready to move on to civilian life.
Bleecker returned home and began working as a reporter at the Capital Journal in Pierre, South Dakota, then to the records department at the Environmental Protection Agency in Montana and later Denver, before settling in at Denver Water two years ago.
Denver Water is a good fit for her, she said, especially now that the utility is moving into its new operations complex.
Employees from all over the organization turn to her department to ask about what records should be saved and how they should be archived, a task she takes in stride thanks to her military experience.
Bleecker is one of dozens of veterans who work at Denver Water, though the exact number is hard to pin down because employees are not required to divulge military status on job applications.
Patrick McCoy, an Air Force veteran and senior application developer in Denver Water’s Information Technology division, manages the utility’s Veterans Network, connecting employees to others at the organization who have served.
Veterans who do work at Denver Water, he said, typically discover that their part in delivering water to a quarter of all Coloradans is a very rewarding career.
“There’s nothing better for a vet than a mission, and Denver Water provides exactly that,” McCoy said. “It’s not just a mission, but a good and noble cause. A challenge that I could do great things with — that’s what veterans are looking for.”