Big dreams come true for small town girl
Early on in life, Cloquet native Teri (Smith) Pleinis learned to tackle challenges head on.
Just because she was four feet, 10-and-a-half inches, that was no reason she couldn’t be a soldier. And just because she was a woman, that was no reason she couldn’t enter the male-dominated halls of West Point. She succeeded at both, and today she wears the stripes of a U.S. Army colonel to prove it.
Success didn’t come easily to Pleinis, however. When she was only 12 years old, her father, Kenneth Smith, passed away, leaving only her, her mom, Renee Smith, and her older brother, Jason Smith. However, her grandparents, Anna and Harry Loisel, lived in Cloquet as did many of her cousins, and they provided the type of support network that helped guide Teri into adulthood.
She attended school at Washington Elementary, Cloquet Middle School (CMS), and Cloquet High School (CHS).
“I always had a love for math that started in Mrs. Schmidt’s fifth-grade math class,” said Pleinis. “Throughout high school, I loved math and accounting, which is probably why I chose to become a comptroller in the Army.”
She participated in soccer, volleyball and track in high school and was also on the math team and National Honor Society.
“I really enjoyed learning and graduated as co-valedictorian of my class of 1990,” she related.
Once again, Pleinis was quick to acknowledge that she couldn’t have done it on her own.
“Throughout high school, I particularly enjoyed my social studies teachers and there were a few standouts,” said Pleinis. “Most memorable were Mr. (Paul) Arnovich, Mr. (Dick) Bartholdi, Mr. (Charlie) Butcher and my homeroom teacher Mr. (Bill) Kennedy. They always pushed the students because they knew the potential we all had in high school.”
By the time Pleinis reached her junior year, she knew that she would need to get a full scholarship in order to attend college. It was at that time she began to research the service academies and applied for the United States Military Academy (aka West Point), Air Force Academy and the Naval Academy. The late Congressman Jim Oberstar of the House of Representatives sponsored her recommendation to attend a military academy, and in December 1989, she received an early notice that West Point had accepted her application for admission, becoming the first woman from Cloquet to be admitted to the prestigious academy.
“Although I received nominations and acceptance at the Air Force Academy as well, I wanted to honor my father through serving in the Army,” she said. “He served as a SPEC4 in the Army, most notably in the Korean War.”
Pleinis confessed that the months and years of training ahead of her were fraught with anxiety and doubt—but were among the most satisfying of her young lifetime.
“West Point definitely builds leaders of character, and some days were more challenging than others,” she explained. “I wasn’t used to having someone yell at me for what I considered no reason, but when you are four foot ten-and-a-half, you attract a lot of attention!"
“There were many days where I thought I could not handle the yelling or stresses of cadet life,” she continued. “I would humbly ask my mother if she would still love me if I came home and she always answered, ‘Of course…call me tomorrow about the arrangements.’”
Being a new cadet or “plebe,” Pleinis was only authorized to make one phone call a week, and by the time she was able to call her mother back and her mother asked her if she was ready to come home, Pleinis would say, “Of course not, I just drove a tank today…or jumped out of an airplane… or rappelled out of a helicopter!”
“West Point was high adventure and I am happy that I endured the time at the Academy,” she reflected. “As in any job, some of my greatest challenges are with other leaders. I always say we can learn from everyone…from some, what to do; and from some, what not to do. I know what kind of leader I do not want to be and I know the leader that I strive to be.”
Among Pleinis’s more memorable experiences along the way was her graduation from West Point—but not solely for the reasons you might think.
“When the cadets threw up their hats in the air to celebrate, one must have hit me on the way down,” she related. “I was oblivious to that fact, and when I ran towards my mother after graduating, there was blood streaming down my face from the metal West Point crest on the hat that hit me. At that point in time, I was so happy to have achieved a diploma from the prestigious organization that I didn’t even realize I was injured!”
Pleinis’ said her subsequent time spent in service with the United States Army has well been worth the effort of getting through the Academy, and it has afforded her the opportunity to go many places over the years. She has served in Fort Bragg, N.C., Haiti; Fort Jackson, S. C.; Schofield Barracks, HI, and Tampa, FL. with United States Central Command under the leadership of General Petreaus and General Mattis.
It was when she was stationed in North Carolina that a mutual friend introduced her to a fellow military member, Greg Pleinis, at Fayetteville Christian Church.
“She thought we would hit it off and she was right—we hit it right out of the park!” said Teri. “We were married in 2002 and had our son Joseph (Joey) in August 2004 and our daughter Grace in March 2007.”
Along the way, she also received her Masters’ degree in operations research with a minor in mathematics at North Carolina State and was deployed to Iraq with as part of the Multi-National Force.
“I was deployed in Iraq for six months in 2008,” said Pleinis. “The hardest part was leaving my children, especially my daughter who had just turned 1 year old, but it was my turn to do my duty to protect our great country.”
With both Teri and Greg in the military, the Pleinises’ family life was anything but ordinary—to anyone except for themselves.
“My children are absolutely the greatest troopers in picking up and moving every few years,” she said. “They have moved from North Carolina, to Tampa, FL, to Hawaii, and now back to Tampa. That is a lot of country to cover for a 7- and 9-year-old. Joey and Grace have learned to adapt and make new friends quickly wherever we go.”
Pleinis said the family strives to maintain a high level of normalcy despite their mobile lifestyle, and they love to play cards and board games, spend time in the pool, and go to sporting events (specifically the ones that the kids play in). Joey and Grace are involved with Cub Scouts and American Heritage Girls, and Greg and Teri are both leaders in their children’s troops. They also are involved with Awana organization at their local church.
And just what, if anything, have they had to sacrifice along the way?
“There are always sacrifices, especially being a part of a dual military family, with Greg in the Air Force and me in the Army,” said Pleinis. “We’ve both had chances to raise our kids while the other one was serving overseas in Iraq or Afghanistan. However, God has always provided and we have a great life.”
Among the highlights of Pleinis’ military career was having her mother present when she was rotating out of her command time in Hawaii.
“I always thank God that she was the ‘wind beneath my wings’ and my biggest cheerleader in life,” said Pleinis. “She is simply amazing and full of unconditional love and support.”
Another was the chance to meet President Obama and his wife Michelle.
“I joke around and say that President Obama was able to meet the Pleinis family for Christmas in 2013!” said Pleinis. “My family had a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to meet the President and the First Lady during their vacation in Hawaii. While waiting to see them, we were coaching our kids on the protocol to address our Commander in Chief and First Lady, but we were very impressed how personable they were. Mrs. Obama offered everyone a hug, and the President commented on how impressed he was with Joey’s Cub Scout uniform, noticing all the belt loops and awards he had earned during his scouting career from Tiger Scouts to Webelos. The President was also surprised to see my daughter sporting blue Crocs with her black velvet dress. The funny story here is that we were told we could not have open-toed shoes in the facility. That’s unusual for Hawaii, where Grace usually wears cute sandals with her dresses. Being Christmas Day, no shops were open, but we found an extra pair of Crocs in our ‘emergency tote’ in the van. Needless to say, instead of breaking the rules and risk being asked to leave the dining facility for wearing the wrong shoes, we made the switch from silver sandals to blue Crocs. Grace was a trooper and told the President that they were her mommy’s shoes!”
Pleinis lists among her most memorable military accomplishments “the chance to save a young soldier from taking her life when she didn’t feel the strength and love to live” and winning the Douglas MacArthur Leadership Award in 1999 as a result of “the amazing soldiers that have blessed my career,” she said.
But once again, Pleinis attributes her success to more than her own accomplishments.
“My greatest personal accomplishment is realizing my life is nothing without a strong foundation in the Lord,” said Pleinis. “Being able to make the determination to rededicate my life in 2001 was monumental as I was baptized in the Pacific Ocean. My life has changed dramatically and God has blessed me with a strong, dedicated and loving husband and two amazingly smart and adorable children. GOD IS GOOD!”
When Pleinis graduated from West Point, her ultimate goal was not only to serve her country but to be able to retire after 20 years.
“I am currently at that point in my career,” she said, “but as luck would have it, I recently transferred to Tampa, Fla., for another potential three-year tour in the military,” she said.
There, on July 1, she was promoted to the rank of colonel (one rank away from brigadier general) as part of the United States Special Operations Command—quite the fitting accomplishment for a small town girl who always dared to follow her dreams and believe anything was possible….