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Big dreams come true for Cloquet native

Cloquet native Teri (Smith) Pleinis is shown with her children Joey (left) and Grace.

Early on in life, Cloquet native Teri (Smith) Pleinis learned to tackle challenges head on.

Just because she was 4 feet, 10½ 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 insignia 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, died, 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 and Cloquet High School.

“I always had a love for math that started in Mrs. Schmidt’s fifth-grade math class,” Pleinis said. “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 recalled.

Once again, Pleinis was quick to acknowledge that she couldn’t have done it on her own.

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 (also known as 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 added.

Being a new cadet or “plebe,” Pleinis was authorized to make only 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 said.  Among Pleinis’ 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, including Haiti and Tampa, Fla., with United States Central Command.

When she was stationed in North Carolina, 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!” she said. “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 master’s degree in operations research with a minor in mathematics at North Carolina State and was deployed to Iraq as part of the Multi-National Force.

“I was deployed in Iraq for six months in 2008,” Pleinis said. “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, Fla., 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.”

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,” Pleinis said. “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,” Pleinis said.  “She is simply amazing and full of unconditional love and support.”

Another was the chance to meet President Barack Obama and his wife, Michelle.

“I joke around and say that President Obama was able to meet the Pleinis family for Christmas in 2013,” Pleinis said.  

“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,” she said. “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.”

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.”

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.