National Guard Spc. Ashley King drew a double-take from her Minnesota Guard co-workers the first time the men saw her climb aboard a piece of heavy equipment to move a Minot dike. A female equipment operator may be unusual, but for King, stick time with an excavator on a dike is like play time with a toy in a sandbox.
"This is just playing in the dirt," she said.
King currently is aiding in flood recovery in her home city of Minot as a volunteer from the North Dakota Army National Guard's Carrington-based 835th Engineering Team, an asphalt team.
Spc. Ashley King with the North Dakota Army National Guard operates the controls of a piece of heavy equipment at a dike site in Minot in this photo from the North Dakota Army National Guard.
Spc. Ashley King operates an excavator at the edge of a dike in Minot in this photo from the North Dakota Army National Guard.
King, 24, a native of Cando, attended Lake Region State College in Devils Lake on a basketball scholarship before moving to Minot in 2007 to study athletic training at Minot State University. Due to graduate next spring, she's played Beaver basketball, served in the MSU Ambassador program and worked with MSU Gaming.
She joined the National Guard in June 2009, becoming one of seven heavy equipment specialists with the 835th. North Dakota's flood response is her first big mission.
"This is actually the big reason why I wanted to do heavy equipment," King said. "I feel like I can help more with my MOS (Military Occupational Specialty) by moving dirt, helping put up dikes, take down dikes."
She realized the importance of heavy equipment after seeing it in action during Hurricane Katrina recovery. As an outdoor type who likes machines, she figured the occupational speciality would be a good fit for her in the Guard. She remembers as a little girl, sitting on her uncle's lap while helping him steer a combine.
"I always had a knack. The first thing I ever ran by myself was a combine," she said. "Eye-hand coordination is good for me."
She later learned to operate a Bobcat. She has worked as an equipment operator on a construction site for a restaurant.
She was one of only five or six women in her platoon of 50 to 60 guardsmen during training camp. She learned to operate loaders, scapers, graders and her favorite, the excavator.
Operating the big equipment involves getting bounced around and dusty, and it takes some shoulder muscle. Still, King enjoys her work enough to have volunteered to stay on in Minot after her team's mission ended.
Her team initially was called up in May to assist with sandbagging in Bismarck. Shortly after that mission ended, King's team was called to Minot on June 27. When that mission concluded, King volunteered to stay on to assist the Minnesota 850th Horizontal Engineer Company in Minot. She has been part of the National Guard's efforts to open diked streets and remove dikes around city wells.
Unlike many of the guardsmen who have come from around the state and now Minnesota to help in Minot, King can sleep in her own bed at night. Assisting in her home city brings mixed emotions, though. Like other Minot residents, she can remember how things used to be and feels the sorrow, knowing it has touched families of her friends.
"I got to go on a Blackhawk and we flew around Minot," she said. "It was unreal how many things were under water."
It gives her a good feeling to know that she's helping through efforts such as getting roads re-opened.
"In a real way, every day I am helping make a path to normalcy," she said.
She'll soon be parking the equipment to work with the One-Stop Shop at Job Service until her classes at MSU resume.
King moves on knowing she's proven herself in the dirt-moving arena and is welcomed by fellow Guard soldiers as a valued member of the team.
"Once we wear this uniform, everybody is accepting," she said. "You always have something in common."