Motivated by the terrorist attacks of 2001, Jessamyn Sobecki-Engle of Cloverdale joined the California National Guard at age 17 and went off to war in Iraq a few years later in 2004.
A slender, 5-foot-6 woman, Sobecki-Engle served in a military intelligence unit and earned a combat action badge as a Humvee gunner, manning a .50-caliber roof-mounted machine gun.
Now in Afghanistan's Helmand Province on her second overseas deployment, Sobecki-Engle, 28, has been promoted to sergeant first class and awarded a Bronze Star for meritorious service.
The 2002 graduate from Cloverdale High School said she has found a niche in the military, serving her country, seeing the world and helping others.
"It is such an honor to wear this uniform every day, I am so grateful," Sobecki-Engle said in an email from Afghanistan.
But she's also retained the childhood lessons she learned from her parents, Skip Engle and Marybeth Sobecki, who involved their three daughters in buying Christmas presents for the needy, raising more than 50 puppies for the Canine Companions for Independence assistance dogs program and sponsoring a low-income elderly woman and her special-needs son.
"Even as young children, we got to see the fruits of our labor in giving back to the community we loved and to those in need," she said.
Sobecki-Engle, who will spend Christmas in Afghanistan, said she often reads The Press Democrat online and was inspired by a Nov. 27 story about holiday season efforts to assist the needy.
Officials at the Volunteer Center of Sonoma County were stunned by Sobecki-Engle's online gift of $100.
On the message line accompanying her donation, the soldier far from home typed: "Please thank the community that raised me."
Eunice Valentine, the Volunteer Center's executive director, said she and other staffers could not recall any other donation from a soldier in Afghanistan.
"It's most remarkable," Valentine said.
The Volunteer Center manages the Secret Santa program, which the soldier and her two sisters once bought presents for and this year has already fulfilled about 14,000 gift requests from needy children and adults.
Marybeth Sobecki, a nurse at Santa Rosa Memorial Hospital, wasn't surprised by her daughter's generosity.
"She grew up in a family where service is considered an important part of who you are," Sobecki said. "She's an amazing person."
As youngsters, Jessamyn and her twin, Marisa, and their younger sister, Lilia, walked in the Human Race, a Volunteer Center fundraiser that draws thousands of participants.
Years later, when the twins ran the 10-kilometer event, Jessamyn, a marathon runner, backtracked from the finish line in order to cross it along with Marisa.
In 2004, when Marisa made it to Hollywood as an "American Idol" contestant, Jessamyn got away from basic training in Texas to hear her sister sing for TV's top show.
Sobecki-Engle now has 11 years in the National Guard — nine on active duty — and is serving in Afghanistan with a Redding-based company of the Guard's 579th Engineer Battalion, headquartered in Santa Rosa.
Her unit repairs and builds bridges and runs convoy security missions, with what Sobecki-Engle described as "numerous enemy engagements."
She's due home in mid-January, and said she can't wait to see the vineyards, redwoods and ocean again.
"Home truly is where the heart is," the decorated soldier said.