Waukon native Megan O’Neill has always had an eye on joining the military. That’s why she joined the National Guard when she was just a junior in high school.
That decision is paying off as O’Neill is on track to graduate from the University of Iowa two years after she finishes basic training.
Fulfilling her dream
The daughter of Michelle and the late Joe O’Neill of Waukon, O’Neill reached out to National Guard recruiter Tasha Throndson while still in high school.
“I joined because I wanted to do something different and always had an interest in the military,” she said. “It was also a way to help put myself through college.”
Following her graduation from Waukon High School in 2019, O’Neill did her One Station Unit Training (OSUT) at Fort Leonard Wood, located in the Missouri Ozarks. During that time, she completed basic training and job training back-to-back.
As a part of basic training, O’Neill said she gained skills such as shooting, moving and communicating as a team, battle tactics, self-defense tactics and how to handle weapons. Job training focused on law enforcement.
“It was almost like going to the police academy but with a military style to it,” she said, noting they practiced traffic stops, active shooter drills, crime scene investigations and more.
“My favorite thing we did was the police training. My future plans are to go into law enforcement so having this experience was a lot of fun,” she said. “It was also very unique because we were given a lot of responsibility and trust with equipment.”
Specialist O’Neill graduated from OSUT training on November 27, 2019, the day before Thanksgiving. From there, she began studies at the University of Iowa, where she majored in sociology with a minor in criminology and psychology.
While in high school, O’Neill earned roughly 60 college credits. Thanks to her training in the National Guard, she earned another 19. That meant she could earn her U of I degree in just three semesters.
“I didn’t even know that I was able to graduate that early until the beginning of this year, but it was incredible to me that I could get a four-year degree in just a year and a half,” said O’Neill.
While being a full-time student, O’Neill simultaneously fulfills her duties in the Guard. She attends training one weekend a month, in addition to two weeks during the summer.
“Balancing it has actually been pretty easy. I just have to communicate with my professors for larger deadlines if I have drill on a weekend that something may be due or if I have an exam,” she said. “The only time it was ever an issue was when my unit responded to the COVID-19 pandemic. I got put on full-time orders with the National Guard, so I was working 7-to-7 and trying to complete school work when I got off for the day.”
O’Neill said her experience in the Guard has given her an advantage networking with campus security and other law enforcement agencies.
Recently, O’Neill has been featured in a video on the National Guard Facebook page. The video promotes how O’Neill’s training has gotten her an advantage in graduating from college early as well as providing her training for life after the Guard.
“When I was looking into joining the National Guard, I didn’t really know what I wanted to do, exactly. The recruiter was like ‘you can have all these jobs and whenever you find something that you like, the army has something for that to put on a resume that will get you ahead of a lot of your peers,’” she says in the video clip. “That was like a way for me to do something other than just go to college. I could go to college and have this when I go to get a job in the civilian world.”
Planning for the future
While O’Neill could have walked at graduation this month, she chose to extend her college career another semester. After she receives her diploma, O’Neill is still eyeing the paths available to her. She said she’d like to pursue active duty at some point.
The experience has been a positive one for O’Neill, providing skills she doesn’t believe she would have learned otherwise.
“Discipline is a big thing I learned – and time management. I’ve learned there’s a lot more in this world than just myself,” she said.
O’Neill encourages anyone who is thinking about joining the Guard to look into it.
“My advice would be to do it. It gave me a lot of unique experiences and opportunities. As well as some lifelong friends who live and serve all over the world.”