Capt. Joanie Baca remembers looking up at the picturesque, mountain terrain during her 11-month deployment in Afghanistan last year near the Pakistani border.

“The mountains were beautiful,” said Baca, 34, who grew up in Ahwatukee Foothills. “But then it becomes very real that there are the Taliban in those mountains. That don’t just hate you, but where you come from and what you stand for.”

Amidst the paradox, stress and hostility of the environment, Baca credits an ability to adapt well and a team that worked together.

“That’s another part of getting through it, is going to people who can advise you,” Baca added. “It was an honor and I can’t accept it on just my behalf.”

Last month, Baca was given the Surgeon General’s Physician Recognition Award for a Captain. In Afghanistan, Baca led and captained units that coordinated air support and medical services for soldiers out on missions.

The Mountain Pointe High School graduate, who also attended Arizona State University, said receiving the award was “humbling.”

“It’s like anything else in life; you go into it, put your best foot forward and don’t think about awards, at least I didn’t,” Baca said. “The ultimate outcome is a by-product of each member and what they bring to the table.”

Recently celebrating their first anniversary, Baca and her husband live in the town of Grafenwöhr where she is working as a brigade surgeon until next summer.

Before her deployment to Afghanistan in 2010, Baca attended Pepperdine University where she ran cross country, then transferred to ASU where she prepped for medical school at the University of Illinois.

Though she knew she wanted to be in medicine as a surgeon, Baca said she didn’t envision herself serving in the military.

“My life turned some corners that I didn’t plan on,” Baca said, though she was able to share a similar experience with her father.

Twenty years earlier, her father was also stationed in Fort Lewis, Wash., and then to Germany, like his daughter.

“He definitely enjoyed that,” Baca said proudly.

As deployments for the U.S. Army are gradually lessening, according to Baca, with the military reducing its forces by about 30,000 soldiers, she anticipates a new chapter of her life.

Baca plans on going back to residency as a surgeon, craving more hands-on work in the operating room. Still, she is thankful for her team and the camaraderie she experienced overseas.

“You just hope that the scope you bring is going to benefit the soldiers you’re deploying with,” Baca said. “I can’t really think of a better way to serve an American soldier.”

• Contact writer: (480) 898-4903 or Follow on Twitter: @_dianamartinez.

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