When Pvt. Rylie Denson graduates from Poynette High School this weekend, she will take the next step toward her future in the Wisconsin Army National Guard.
Denson enlisted as a flight operations specialist in the Madison, Wisconsin-based 1st Battalion, 147th Aviation Regiment, Feb. 25, and she will report to basic training at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri, in August.
When she returns to her unit from training, she will begin writing the next chapter in a three-generation line of Densons to serve in the 147th. Her father, Maj. Doug Denson, currently serves as the battalion's executive officer, and her grandfather, retired Brig. Gen. Kerry Denson, was the original commander who stood up the unit at its founding in 1985. Brig. Gen. Denson went on to become the director of aviation for the Wisconsin Army National Guard and eventually the assistant adjutant general for the state's Army National Guard.
The elder Densons have long lineages in the military with multiple combat deployments. Brig. Gen Denson was originally drafted in 1965 and later served two combat tours in Vietnam as a decorated helicopter pilot. He was shot down three times.
Maj. Denson deployed with the 147th to Iraq in 2003 and again in 2010-11. The father and son have a combined 60 years of military service, much of it with the 147th. Maj. Denson's brother, Patrick, a master sergeant in the U.S. Air Force, is retiring after 25 years of service there, and now Riley will soon begin her tenure and build her own military legacy.
That's just what she aims to do. While she is well aware of her family's storied history of service within the military and the Wisconsin Army National Guard, she has no plans to get by on her family's name alone ó not that her father would let her.
"She's got to make her own person, and she's got to do what she believes," Maj. Denson said. "Hopefully, the values and the upbringing I've instilled in her make her a better Soldier, but I want her to be her own person and grow as a Soldier without my influence within the battalion. I think that's important to the Soldiers around her too to know that she is just like anybody else regardless of myself or who her grandfather used to be within the state."
There will be no favoritism for his daughter, he said ó just as there was no favoritism when he enlisted into the unit his father once commanded. He also said he never tried to influence Rylie into joining the National Guard.
"I was extremely careful, as was done when I was her age, that this was 100 percent her choice," he said. "This was her doing, and there really was no influence from me. I think this is a really big decision, and it's a personal decision that a person has got to make on their own, and that's what she's done."
Having visited her father's unit since she was a small child, the National Guard was part of Rylie's blood, and she ultimately couldn't imagine life without it.
"Definitely a big part of it is college [benefits]," she said of her reasons for joining. "But the deeper part of it is that I just realized that as I grow up and I'm not with my dad anymore or my grandpa I'm never going to have that connection anymore. I just feel like that is something I'd be missing a lot."
Ultimately, the 147th felt like family to her.
"My whole life I feel like I grew up at my dad's unit," she said.
"It just kind of felt like home in a way ó the National Guard and the Army."
Rylie grew up hearing her grandfather's war stories from Vietnam and watching her father deploy and lead Soldiers, and she knew she wanted to be a part of that legacy. She hopes to follow in her family's footsteps. She has had good examples to follow.
"I'm most proud of their sense of leadership and modesty," she said of her father and grandfather.
"I just see so many people that are leaders and very arrogant about it, and my family just has never been like that," she added. "They're always there to help everyone out. And they do such great things, but they're very humble about it, and I just really appreciate it."
Rylie's best friend, Autumn Peck, also a senior at Poynette High School, wanted to join the military as well, so Maj. Denson offered to bring the two girls in on a drill weekend to tour the facility and talk to some of the unit's Soldiers about their experiences in the Guard.
The girls were both inspired listening to some of the female Soldiers talk about their time in Iraq, and both Autumn and Rylie decided they wanted to join the unit together.
On Feb. 25, Maj. Denson read his daughter the oath of enlistment, with her grandfather present.
"I'm unbelievably proud," Maj. Denson said. "My dad actually swore me into the military [in 1993]. It's kind of cool to be able to pass on the tradition to swear her in."
The major has no doubts that his daughter will excel in the military. She ran cross country and track, played basketball, and was active in many organizations at Poynette High School.
"She's a well-rounded individual, and she has the right morals," he said.
Brig. Gen Denson said he never encouraged his sons or Rylie to join the military, but he's proud of all of them for serving.
"I used to sign my signature block when I was commander, 'Excellence by example.' And I'm bragging here, but my boys went in because they liked what I did," the retired brigadier general said. "They liked what they saw in the military ó the culture, the values, the sense of mission accomplishment. They liked that, and so did Rylie. Since she was a baby, she's been around the military. She liked what she saw, because she made that decision on her own with really no encouragement from us."
Rylie will leave for basic training in August and return from advanced individual training at Fort Rucker, Alabama in December. She plans to attend the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse and study international business and Spanish when she returns.