An official website of the United States Government 
Here's how you know

Official websites use .gov

.gov website belongs to an official government organization in the United States.

Secure .gov websites use HTTPS

A lock ( lock ) or https:// means you’ve safely connected to the .gov website. Share sensitive information only on official, secure websites.

Face of Defense: Army Instructor Combines Passions as an Elite Mountaineer

Army Staff Sgt. Andrea Okrasinski didn't start her military career on active duty — she spent years working in the civilian education field first. More than a decade into that career, however, a chance assignment led her to combine her passion for teaching with her appreciation for nature by becoming an instructor at the Army Mountain Warfare School.

A woman points at a knot in a rope tied to a tree. Two other women look at it.
Work Evaluation
Army Staff Sgt. Andrea Okrasinski, an Army Mountain Warfare School instructor with the Vermont National Guard, evaluates the work of basic military mountaineering course students, near Jericho, Vt., March 8, 2024.
Photo By: Air Force Staff Sgt. Eugene Oliver, DOD
VIRIN: 240308-D-VS137-1009

Army Staff Sgt. Andrea Okrasinski
Job Title: Army Mountain Warfare School instructor 
Hometown: Bartlett, Ill. 
Stationed: Jericho, Vt.
Unit: Vermont National Guard

Okrasinski is one of the few instructors who is not a native of Vermont, where the school is located. But she grew up riding horses competitively and spent a lot of time in the woods on her family's land, so a love of the outdoors has always been in her blood.  

Okrasinski joined the Army Reserve at 18. After getting a degree from Southern Illinois University, she took a job as a snowboard instructor, then as a disciplinarian dean at a Chicago high school. Later, she became an academic intervention teacher. As a reservist, she was initially a construction engineer before switching to civil affairs and taking a position as an Army Reserve administrator in Green Bay, Wisconsin. During those 10 years, she deployed three times, including to her father's native Poland. 

While serving in Green Bay, Okrasinski made a choice that would change the course of her life. She was approved to attend the AMWS as a basic military mountaineering course student, arriving in Jericho, Vermont, for training in August 2021. She loved it and excelled. While there, a schoolhouse leader told Okrasinski they were looking for new instructors, and she qualified for the job. She decided she didn't really enjoy working at a desk all day, so she transferred from the Reserve to the National Guard and moved to Vermont to start as an AMWS instructor in June 2022.  

A woman holding a piece of paper talks to several people who are facing her.
Instructor Remarks
Army Staff Sgt. Andrea Okrasinski, an instructor at the Army Mountain Warfare School in Jericho, Vt., talks to students of the basic military mountaineering course before sending them off to train, March 8, 2024.
Photo By: Air Force Staff Sgt. Eugene Oliver, DOD
VIRIN: 240308-D-VS137-1017

What did your time working as a civilian at schools teach you about being an instructor?  

As a disciplinarian dean, I learned a lot about who I was as a person, what I wanted to put out into the world and what kind of product I want to give to the kids. My job as an academic intervention teacher also gave me a lot of insight into myself and what I like to do. I love to teach — not necessarily one subject, but I love to help students have that lightbulb moment, let them grasp the concepts and give them the skillsets to solve their own problems. 

What is the hardest part of being a mountaineering instructor? 

Students not grasping the concepts I'm teaching them. I've given them the information, but it's not up to me for them to retain it. So, that's probably one of the hardest things to do. The other thing is a work-life balance. We're here a lot. We have a lot of courses. We don't have a ton of time between courses to take our leave. The amount of laundry that's piling up right now is getting a little ridiculous. So, just trying to find that balance of coming home at the end of the day and still having to do life at that point. 

Several people watch as a woman climbs a rock wall.
Climbing Instruction
Army Staff Sgt. Andrea Okrasinski, an Army Mountain Warfare School instructor with the Vermont National Guard, demonstrates to basic military mountaineering course students how to use a belay on a rock wall, Jericho, Vt., March 9, 2024.
Photo By: Katie Lange, DOD
VIRIN: 240309-D-JZ422-010A

What is the best part of the job? 

It's a very niche community, and I hate to say it, but I get paid to do this. I get paid to rock climb. I get paid to work with students. I get paid to use my lifetime of experience to put towards the students. I also get to do it with some of the best in the world. So, it's really cool to be here and do that. I get to put a harness on almost every day and get to use these skills not just here, but then I can go out and do some climbing with friends. 

Not a lot of women are mountaineering instructors. What were your main motivations to persevere here? 

This is a male-dominated field. Because I was a construction engineer in my first MOS — I was one of 14 females and 150 males — I have that experience. … My dad raised me to be a very strong, independent woman, as well as my mom, and to not let a gender dictate how well you're going to do. Just because you're a female doesn't mean that you're not better than a male. So, I've grown up with that attitude. I also don't let it bother me. I know that people talk. I know that there's that stigma of it, and I just don't let it bother me. I choose to look at my skillset and what I'm doing and, as long as I'm being productive and a constructive member of this organization, then I don't look at it as being a female. I look at it as being an asset to the school as a human being. 

A woman holding a piece of paper speaks to others.
Instructor Orders
Army Staff Sgt. Andrea Okrasinski, an Army Mountain Warfare School instructor with the Vermont National Guard, gives orders to basic military mountaineering course students during training, Jericho, Vt., March 9, 2024.
Photo By: Katie Lange, DOD
VIRIN: 240308-D-JZ422-007A

You had a tough time initially at AMWS. How were you able to finally highlight your skills and gain confidence? 

My first six months here were hard. I lost my dad, and I got COVID a couple of times. I got hurt. But at the tail end of that, we had the International Military Mountaineers Association Symposium, and my civil affairs background really shined there. IMMAS includes all of the different military mountaineer communities from NATO partners and other countries. After that, I really gained a lot of confidence. I was able to convince [fellow instructor] Sgt. 1st Class Dustin Dearborn to let me go on the cadre's advanced military mountaineer course with him out to Red Rocks, Nevada. That's where I really shined and took everything that I had been learning for the last eight months or so and applied them. I also gained certain skills that we were being taught during that course. 

What would your advice be to other women trying to make a mark in mountaineering?  

Just to keep going. People are going to say things, and they're going to do that on purpose to try to discourage you or try to dissuade you from doing this. Personally, I use that as motivation to just be better. So, don't let it bother you, as hard as it is to say that — or don't let it bother you out loud in front of them. You can go home at night and — I like to say you're allowed five emotional minutes, and then you've got to get your stuff together. And I used that a lot, especially through my first year here. But once they can see that you're proving yourself and that you're up to snuff, generally they let it go.  

But again, it's a dog-eat-dog world out there, so you're just going to have to go through it. And if you're not mentally tough enough to do it, then unfortunately you shouldn't be there. But mental toughness is something that you can learn and then acquire. ... I've read a lot of self-help books. I've been to therapy — I'm a huge advocate for it. So, taking those things, those frustrations, and either talking to a therapist or putting them into something constructive is probably the best way to come into this field. So, keep moving forward, and find an outlet of some sort — a constructive, happy, healthy outlet. 

A half dozen people in camouflage uniforms work to secure a litter beside a wall.
Mountaineering School
A team of advanced military mountaineering course students at the Army Mountain Warfare School work to secure a litter before lowering it down a vertical wall, Jericho, Vt., March 9, 2024.
Photo By: Katie Lange, DOD
VIRIN: 240309-D-JZ422-011A
Several men hold onto belaying lines and look up at a climber on a rock wall.
Belay Training
Basic military mountaineering course students at the Army Mountain Warfare School practice belaying on the school’s large indoor rock-climbing wall, Jericho, Vt., March 9, 2024.
Photo By: Katie Lange, DOD
VIRIN: 240309-D-JZ422-012A

What tends to be the most difficult aspect for mountaineering students to learn? 

Usually, by the first or second day [of a course], at least in the summer, the physicality part has been weeded out. Those that are strong enough to stay here have that physicality. Then by Tuesday, it's definitely the mental part. We're putting them in situations in which they've never been. We have lieutenants who've been in college or even some noncommissioned officers that have been in college. They can understand academically, but what we're doing is asking them to not just be academically proficient but also technically and tactically proficient. So, putting both of those things together, especially with tying 15 knots and having to learn them within the first six days of them being here, is pretty difficult.  

The other thing is that test anxiety is a real thing. Having been an academic intervention teacher, I know that. I've been able to mitigate a little bit of that anxiety, at least anytime that I have a squad within a course. I always give them study tips and tricks and how to mitigate that anxiety that they might go in with. 


Do you ever hear back from students later in their careers about how their training may have helped them? 

Every once in a while, I'll get a text message with a picture of a knot saying, "I learned this knot and it's holding down our equipment on a truck," or whatever. Last March, I had some students send me and another instructor a care package, just to say, "Thank you for everything you guys did. You're some of the best instructors and NCOs that we've met." That was really sweet. So, I do hear from students, and it's really cool when I do. It just means that I've made some sort of an impact, and that's my goal here. Hopefully, they can walk away being a better version of themselves. 

What do you like to do in your spare time? 

I'm just going to get it out there: I love to nap. I don't know what it is, but I just love a nap. ... I also have two big dogs, so outside of napping with them, I love to go hiking with them. … I do like to climb on the outside, and I also love snowboarding. Being on the Epic Pass, having that military discount with it, is really nice because then I can pretty much go anywhere in the country for it and not pay a ton of money. I'm going to start applying for a master's degree here soon, so that'll probably take some of my time. It'll be more or less in leadership psychology or organizational psychology.  

Related Stories