While April Spilde drove west across the United States with her husband to Vandenberg Air Force Base, California, and her next U.S. Air Force assignment, she reminisced about her accomplishments over the past four years.
Spilde was a member of the Air Force honor guard in Washington, D.C., and had been one of only five women in history to qualify as a pallbearer for the honorary funerals at Arlington National Cemetery. She was the first woman ever to be the NCO in charge of the pallbearers.
To gain the strength to qualify for that post, she had developed an interest in weight training and had gone on to set records as a world-class power lifter.
Her interest in writing had led her to serve as writer and editor of the 256-page manual on how to perform military funerals that would be used at 225 Air Force bases worldwide.
And she had completed her undergraduate education with UMUC to earn a bachelor’s degree in English—the capstone of a college career that had been interrupted in frustration years ago before she joined the Air Force.
Just days before heading to California, a two-star general had pinned her with the E-6 rank that made her a technical sergeant without having to go through the normal testing process. Her accomplishments in Washington had earned her the rapid promotion.
Like so many UMUC students in the military, Spilde has a story to tell.
She was born on April 1, 1986—her first name was derived from her birth month—in Bemidji, Minnesota, and raised in nearby Grand Rapids near the headwaters of the Mississippi River at Lake Itasca. Spilde was part of a blended family that included seven children all living together at the same time.
Her college education started off in a rush when she completed her associate’s degree and graduated from high school at the same time. But her degree-completion efforts soon bogged down when she entered the University of Minnesota as a journalism major. With no money set aside to help her finance college, Spilde worked full-time while taking a full load of classes. And she decided she didn’t want to be a journalist.
“It became a daunting, overwhelming thing for me,” she said in a telephone interview as she rode toward Memphis, Tennessee, on her way west. “That’s when I started looking into enlisting.
“My older sister had joined the Army the year before and she had become a confident, self-assured person working in logistics. I had thought the military was just boots on the ground at war. But this was a skills-based, community-based profession,” Spilde added.
She dropped out of college and quit her job at a bicycle shop to join the Air Force on April 22, 2008. But before she did, she married Peter, a bicycle shop customer, who, literally, has been along for the ride ever since—he was at the wheel as Spilde talked on the phone.
Picked to work in the security forces, she was assigned to Eielson Air Force Base in Alaska before her first deployment in 2009 to Afghanistan to help secure the Bagram Air Base. She was a sharpshooter in a tower. She lay concertina wire. She worked with coalition forces, U.S. soldiers and marines and local national forces.
“Every day it was hit or miss because tensions were pretty high,” Spilde said. “It was its own world.”
After six months back in the States, she was deployed for a six-month tour to the United Arab Emirates as an advanced marksman to be a counter sniper in flight-line security.
But then she got the four-year assignment to Washington as part of the Air Force honor guard, beginning in April 2013.
“The honor guard is like my baby,” Spilde said. “When I found out I had been picked, it was one of the most rewarding days I’ve had. It was really something I wanted to do.”
The honor guard is groomed to perform ceremonial duties, which can be anything from providing military honors at airmen’s funerals to standing at the White House performing a color team for the president at a state dinner.
Spilde decided she wanted to be a pall bearer, even though this job is usually given to men because the caskets, which are carried by eight pallbearers, weigh from 600 to 1,200 pounds. Pallbearers perform up to six funerals a day, requiring sustained strength to ensure the caskets remain level always.
She began her training even before she joined the honor guard by hiring a strength coach to work with her before she took the weight test, and she said she was thrilled when she passed.
Her interest in being a pall bearer took flight when Spilde was stationed in Afghanistan, she said.
“There were many days I was on the flight line watching airmen being carried with a flag-draped transfer case to be transported to Dover Air Force Base. Coming to the honor guard, I was able to get to the other side of that, meet the airmen and carry them home. It was full circle,” she said.
One of the hundreds of funerals that stood out for Spilde was that of a woman who had once been in the honor guard, and who had been killed in a helicopter crash in England. She had been part of the color guard on an earlier assignment to Washington.
“I felt incredibly honored to be able to say I carried my sister home,” Spilde said.
She discovered throughout the strength-training regimen that helped her to qualify as a pallbearer that she liked lifting weights. So, Spilde kept it up and entered competitions in the 100-percent Raw Power Lifting Federation. Raw power means that contestants lift weights without any assistance gear. Dead lifts, squats, bench presses—she said she set a national record in the bench press total in the military category during a competition in Virginia.
“I just enjoy competitive power lifting,” Spilde said. “It’s a huge bonus to what I was able to accomplish at the honor guard. It gave me another outlet for exploring my talent.”
Her talent also veered to the academic. While in the Nation’s Capital, she realized it was time to finish her degree. And after talking to a UMUC adviser, she found out how close she was to completing it.
“I was literally like 20 credits away,” she said, though she still wondered whether she could handle juggling courses and a job that sometimes went from 4:30 in the morning to 7:00 at night.
That’s when she learned about the advantages of an online UMUC education, she said. “I could still get my homework done because I could look at it on my phone, or I could pull it up on a tablet or I could access it from my computer.
“I didn’t have any excuse to procrastinate. To have it all online and having it accessible in so many different avenues, it made this thing accessible to me.”
Accessibility included working in her car to finish her last course while driving across the country.
Her UMUC work in writing and literature led her to the plum assignment of rewriting the Air Force manual on conducting funerals. “It’s a cool thing to say that you’ve published a document that is used at 225 bases worldwide,” she said.
Now with her UMUC degree, Spilde is eligible to apply for Officer Candidate School. But, she said, it’s not an easy choice. On one hand, Spilde enjoys working with airmen, and she has worked her way up the NCO ladder quickly, she said. On the other, becoming an officer would open many new opportunities—but she would have to start down at the lowest rungs.
“I am in a golden year before I have to make this decision,” Spilde said. “I could go in either direction and be pretty happy.”