'I got my backbone on a farm in Richardton' -- An inspiring story of service and leadership

Sep. 14—DICKINSON — In the tranquil landscapes of Richardton, North Dakota, where sprawling fields stretch to eternity, Michelle Voeltz's journey began — an odyssey fueled not just by the amber waves of grain, but by the indomitable spirit of a small-town girl with big dreams.

Raised on a farm in this tight-knit community, she embodies the kind of work ethic that can only be nurtured where neighbors are family, and perseverance is the currency of choice. But Michelle's story isn't just a tale of rural roots; it is one of the epic ascent of a determined woman who, against all odds, etched her name in history as the very first female Patrol Sergeant in the hallowed 142-year annals of the Moorhead Police Department.

In a world of plains, she carved her path through the toughest terrain of them all: the glass ceiling.

In the embrace of her family's farm, Michelle's apprenticeship in the gospel of hard work continued, honed by the tireless rhythms of pre-dawn choreographies and the hum of machinery that painted her childhood. As dawn broke over endless fields, she was already knee-deep in the sweat and grit of rural life, a laborer by sunrise and a dreamer by nightfall.

But life has a way of leading people down uncharted paths, and for Michelle, the siren call of duty beckoned louder than the melodic whir of tractors.

"My family didn't have a lot of money and I didn't have a college fund, so I started to look for options. I was an athlete in volleyball and track, so I figured I could handle the physical aspects and the Army was offering Tuition Assistance and GI Bill bonuses," Michelle recalled. "I signed up during my senior year at 17 and my parents had to sign for me. I actually skipped my senior prom to go to drill."

Adding, "I was never terribly nervous about it though either. My mom always said I would go to the moon if they'd let me."

High school diploma in hand, she dared to leap beyond the boundaries of her familiar fields and donned the uniform of the U.S. Army. Fort Leonardwood, Missouri, was the threshold to this new world — one where discipline sculpted character, and camaraderie defined purpose.

From the rolling plains of the Heartland, her journey took her southward, to the Gulfport Naval Training Center in sultry Mississippi. Here, amidst the humidity and echoes of shipyards, she embarked on the next chapter of her metamorphosis, mastering the arts of carpentry and masonry in the crucible of Advanced Individual Training (AIT).

"Carpentry and masonry was sort of an accident. Being so young, I didn't really know to check into what my ASVAB scores meant and my recruiter had a list of occupational specialties to fill," Michelle recalled. "I could've been a truck driver, a mechanic or a carpenter. Growing up, I was always with my dad and we were always working on something. I think I learned how to shingle at age 10, so a job in the Army as a carpenter/mason sounded like something I could fit into pretty well."

Michelle's journey led her to discover a hidden talent, one that not only brought her satisfaction but also concrete results.

"Turned out I was pretty decent at it, and it was really rewarding to have something tangible to show for your work at the end of a project," she said. "I had a Drill Sergeant who was one of the scariest people I'd ever encountered, and they came up to me one day during a difficult physical exercise. He knelt down next to me and said, 'Don't you ever quit Private, we have high expectations for you.'"

Adding, "He may have said that same thing to the other hundred privates in my platoon, but it resonated, and I carry it with me to this day."

As rural roots met the disciplined cadence of military service, her story unfolded with the tenacity that only a rural North Dakotan could muster. Woven into the tapestry of a new life, Michelle would find a journey that proved to be both extraordinary and unconventional.

After her earliest stint in the military, Michelle's journey took a brief detour back to the familiar embrace of her roots and a short stint at North Dakota State University. But destiny had other plans, and in October of 1997, the winds of change beckoned once more.

The call of duty proved unrelenting as her life pivoted dramatically when she received orders to deploy to the tumultuous heart of Kosovo in 2000, a mission that would forever etch its tactical and technical requirements into her memory.

"I remember, I was at work at Target in Fargo when I got the warning order from my Platoon Leader. We were given three months to get prepared," she recalled. "I didn't really know what to expect, but it was an experience I'll never forget."

With her National Guard Unit, she ventured into the unknown. Her tactical and technical prowess stood as a beacon of unwavering dedication amidst the chaos of conflict.

"It wasn't considered a combat tour, it was "Peace Keeping." When we got there we were attached to the 82nd Engineers out of Bamberg, Germany, and they were less than thrilled to have a bunch of 'National Guardsmen' with them," she remembered. "It was a little bit hilarious at one point. Our tool trailers were delayed coming overseas and a couple of their squads challenged ours to something of a 'build-off.'

Michelle and her fellow Guardsmen built bunkers with limited tools, but having a drill and a skill saw would see them finish the project two days early, despite working the same daily hours as their challengers.

"Luckily the only power tool my dad had was a drill and a skill saw, so I wasn't too worried. We beat them by two days working the same amount of hours in a day," she said with a hint of pride. "I turned 21 over there and amidst all of the mine-detecting, route clearing, security patrols, guard duty and building projects... it was a really beautiful place."

Now older, and a mother herself, Michelle reflected back on this period of her young life overseas with a new found perspective.

"I'm sure my family was scared to death, but I was just taking it all in as an experience that not everyone gets to have. The days were long and the days off were few and far between," she said. "I was the only female in my squad, but no one ever made an issue of it. I always worked just as hard as everyone else and wasn't ever mad about it."

Adding, "I was just always 'one of the guys'. I think that was where my attitude toward my adult life really took shape. I found no matter where I went or where I worked after that, as long as I was willing to put in the effort, have a good attitude and work hard, things would be good."

Her service in Kosovo, marked by challenges in their own right, set the Richardton native on a familiar path of hard work and sleepless nights. Her time in Kosovo, and the extraordinary dedication to her craft, would not be in vain as she would earn the illustrious title of North Dakota State Soldier of the Year.

Another foray into a brief stint of civilian life, she resumed her education at Minnesota State University Moorhead, choosing to major in Criminal Justice. Yet, Michelle's commitment to service remained an unshakable cornerstone of her identity and in 2002, she found herself relocated to the Army Reserve in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, where her role as an observer, controller and trainer for units preparing to deploy overseas became her new calling.

It was here, amidst the drills and discipline, that she crossed paths with a fellow soldier from another section named Scott — the serendipitous encounter that would blossom into a 16-year marriage, grounding her ever-fascinating life in a remarkable partnership.

Through the undulating landscape of her successful military career, Michelle remained a beacon of unwavering pursuit — not for self, but for others.

In 2005, she once again returned to her quest for knowledge and dreams of wearing a badge in service to her community. Michelle enrolled at Colorado Technical University, determined to chase her dreams of graduating with a bachelor's in criminal justice with a minor in Sociology, she was determined to focus on Crime Scene Investigation — dreams of the future she had long envisioned.

In 2007, Michelle found herself in Dickinson, taking her first steps into the world of law enforcement as a member of the Dickinson Police Department. Lt. Michael Hanel with the Dickinson Police Department reflected on his experiences working with Michelle.

"Michelle joined our department in the late 2000s right as the oil boom was kicking off. We were eager to hire a local candidate like her, and she served our department with distinction all the time she was with us," he said. "She has many great qualities of a good officer; approachability, kindness, determination and a can-do attitude. We certainly wish we could have kept her a bit longer, and I know she would have gone far with our department."

He added, "I'm a firm believer that she will excel in her role as a Sergeant. Moorhead is very fortunate to have her leading the next generation of police officers."

Hanel shared a personal story about Michelle, highlighting her innate drive to never settle on her laurels, but strive for achieving more.

"As soon as she was eligible, Michelle joined our regional SWAT team. In doing so, she was the first female officer the team had staffed since its inception. There wasn't a challenge she was faced that she didn't overcome," he recalled. "We were on a grueling 20-hour call-out south of Gladstone in 2009 trying to get four wanted fugitives from Alabama to surrender after finding them hiding in a detached garage on a farmstead."

He added, "It was high-stress. It was cold — it even snowed that morning. Michelle gutted it out with all us guys and eventually saw the situation resolve."

But, just a year later in 2008, while still learning the ropes of law enforcement's stark realities, duty beckoned once more and she was mobilized to Fort Bliss, Texas. True to her resilient nature, she returned to the Dickinson Police Department in 2009, ready to continue her law enforcement career once more with an even greater vigor and dedication.

She had tasted her dream and her hunger was far from quenched.

Through the turbulent currents of a military career, Michelle faced numerous relocations and ever-evolving challenges. Despite it all, and after years of arduous toil, she finally reached a milestone that bore immense pride in her father — a bachelor's degree from Colorado Technical University, bestowed upon her with Cum Laude honors.

"She was with me all the time, helping with haying and swaths. Wherever I went, she went, and her mother didn't always like that," Duane Prouty said with a smile. "That hard work early in her life on the farm set her in motion, gave her work ethic."

Duane shared a story about something his daughter said once to a commanding officer when she was in the military that highlighted that the many long hours working the farm with dad had paid off.

"Her commanding officer called her in and said, 'I've never seen a female soldier like you.' He asked her where she got her backbone," Duane recounted. "She said, 'I got my backbone on a farm in Richardton, North Dakota, from my dad."

A proud father, Duane shared how he tried to instill in her that if she did something wrong she needed to admit it. And if she did something good, she should shine light on others around her.

"I'm proud. I'm so very proud of all my daughters," Duane shared, on the brink of emotion that only a father's love could hold for his little girls.

In 2010, Michelle and her husband embarked on yet another chapter, settling in Fargo. Here, amidst the city's bustling streets, her journey in law enforcement matured, taking root with the Fargo Police Department and ND Parole and Probation.

Years of relentless dedication and service paved the way for her summit — the Mt. Everest of lofty goals — promotion to Patrol Sergeant with the Moorhead Police Department in May of 2023.

In this historic moment, Michelle Voeltz's name became forever etched into the annals of time, as she assumed the mantle of the first female Patrol Sergeant in the department's 142-year history.

Her journey, marked by an unyielding spirit, relentless determination, and a passion for service, stands as an enduring testament to the power of dedication and the pursuit of dreams against all odds.

Throughout the tapestry of her remarkable career, Michelle has woven a vibrant spectrum of roles and responsibilities, each a testament to her unyielding commitment to her community.

From the adrenaline-pumping duties of a SWAT Operator to the meticulous precision of a Crime Scene Investigator, she's worn the badges of a Bike Patrol Officer and an Evidence Manager with equal pride. As a Special Response Team Operator, she's faced the most daunting challenges, and as a Tactical Medical Instructor, she's imparted invaluable knowledge. But her impact reaches beyond the field, as her dedication to teaching and mentoring shines through in her roles as a Law Enforcement Instructor, Field Training Officer and Defensive Tactics Instructor.

Along this extraordinary journey, she's earned not one but two life-saving medals, a testament to her unwavering commitment to the safety and well-being of her community.

Yet, in the midst of all of her many accomplishments, Michelle remains grounded in gratitude.

Rather than accept the much deserved accolade and recognition, the farm girl from Richardton instead pushes the spotlight from her own achievements onto those whom she recognized for their unwavering support.

Her family, her parents Duane and Ruth Prouty, and her sisters Melissa Sletmoe, Alicia Prouty and Julie Prouty. Her profound appreciation extended to her husband, Scott, and their daughters, Brooklyn and Makenna, who have stood as her unshakeable pillars of strength.

In a final, humbling note, Michelle acknowledges the co-workers and mentors who have illuminated her path — both in the military and in law enforcement, over the years.

Michelle shared how forever mindful of her roots she is, never forgetting where she began.

As the first female patrol sergeant in the long history of the Moorhead Police Department, Michelle Voeltz has not only made her hometown of Richardton proud, but has also ignited a spark of inspiration in countless other young girls, who may not come from affluent families or stations, to chase their own dreams.