Assemblyman Das Williams, D-Santa Barbara, honored Teija Kinnunen, 23, as Veteran of the Year for the 35th District on Wednesday at the California Veterans Recognition Luncheon.

Kinnunen, a student studying criminal justice at Santa Barbara City College, joined the Army in November 2006, just a few months after she graduated from high school in Hancock, Mich. She decided to join the military to follow a childhood dream and she felt college wasn’t the route to take at the time.

She was stationed at Fort Campbell, Ky., for 4½ years and deployed to Afghanistan twice, all of 2008 and 2010. She began as a light wheel mechanic.

Shortly after that, because the Army needed door gunners on a Chinook helicopter, she was one of few females to become a door gunner. For the rest of her service time, she filled a role primarily occupied by male soldiers.

As a door gunner on a utility and cargo helicopter, her main duty was to be concerned with threats to the helicopter and crew on board, whether the helicopter was in the air or on the ground. Her duties included a time standard to acquire, engage and hit the target.

She also provided direct fire as protection for the aircraft and crew passengers and cargo care, pre- and post-flight duties, crew coordination and weapons maintenance.

In June 2011, she was honorably discharged from the Army as a specialist E4 and many decorations, medals and badges reflect her exemplary service. She decided to attend college near where her parents lived in Ojai when they were younger and would one day like to be an FBI agent.

Williams recognized Kinnunen during the fifth annual luncheon event held in Sacramento that highlighted the contributions of outstanding veterans from throughout the state.

“I feel privileged to be able to honor Teija for her bravery in fighting for our country and then returning to pursue a higher education,” Williams said.

— James Joyce is a field representative of Assemblyman Das Williams, D-Santa Barbara.