TUSCALOOSA, Ala. — An Air Force staff sergeant who serves her nation and community has received the 2022 Legendary Service Award from The University of Alabama Online.
Air Force Staff Sgt. Sarah Neal will be honored at Bryant-Denny Stadium during the Alabama-Austin Peay game Nov. 19 and will receive a tuition grant for online courses through UA Online.
“Staff Sgt. Neal has channeled her perseverance into a passion for helping others,” said Dr. Robert Hayes, interim associate provost for the Office of Teaching Innovation and Digital Education, which houses UA Online. “Her commitment to excellence in her work with the military and her community while pursuing a degree through UA Online is truly inspiring.”
Neal enlisted as a reservist when she was 22 but ultimately chose to become active duty once she saw the search and rescue mission at Patrick Space Force Base in Brevard County, Florida.
“If there’s a cruise ship that needs help or someone overboard that needs [to be] rescued, we’re deployed,” Neal said. “We protect our allies if a plane goes down and we support local hurricane rescue efforts. Once I became part of this mission, that’s when I realized how amazing the military really is, and that’s what made me become active duty.”
In 2018, Neal became part of the airfield flight equipment crew, helping maintain critical equipment for aircrews. In December, she will receive a promotion to the rank of technical sergeant for her commitment to developing the airmen in her unit. She has also been honored as the noncommissioned officer of the quarter at the wing level at her base and nominated for Aircrew Flight Equipment NCO of the Year for the entire U.S. Air Force.
Neal still finds time to volunteer, even while busy with her career and a newborn son, whom she and her husband, Justin, welcomed in August. She has organized a local “Walk a Mile in Her Shoes” 5K — a race that raises awareness of rape, sexual assault and gender violence — as well as a 5K that raised more than $4,000 in support of the armed forces. She also organizes volunteer opportunities between her unit and the local zoo and animal shelters and works to help others find volunteer opportunities in the community as well.
“I’m big on things for the local community,” Neal said. “I feel like there’s so many organizations that I want everybody to be a part of, and I try to get as much coordinated as I can.”
Neal chose UA Online because of the University’s military-friendly reputation and flexible online programs. She has just three classes left until she graduates with a Master of Arts in Management with a concentration in global business. Balancing coursework with her service and family responsibilities has been a challenge, but Neal said her professors have been supportive and understanding.
“Every instructor has been super willing to work with me and my schedule,” Neal said. “It’s nice to feel like military service members still have the opportunity because [the instructors are] willing to work with us.”