When Amanda McGregor took over as president of the Nisswa Chamber of Commerce in January, little did she know how her job would change in an instant.

Just as she was meeting chamber members, touring their businesses and learning how they operate, COVID-19 struck and the city - along with the rest of the state - nearly completely shut down. McGregor is now working with the chamber board to revise annual events to keep tourists and residents safe in light of the coronavirus.

Drawing from a 13-year career in the military, McGregor said of her job right now: “Something can be purposeful and meaningful, but not necessarily fun. I am eager to help support the return to fun we have been feeling the last couple weeks as best we can at the chamber.”

However, McGregor said her chamber post is incredibly fulfilling, and every chamber member she has met has shared an inspirational story that’s fueled her to be supportive. Chamber memberships haven’t dropped in Nisswa, which is a reflection of the community, she said on a windy but sunny Friday afternoon while sitting at a picnic table outside the chamber building. A flow of people strolled or biked by on the Paul Bunyan Trail, and downtown Nisswa was filled with cars and people.

“It’s tough but incredible to see how resilient and powerful this community is,” McGregor said. “I think nine times out of 10, you’ll be given something before you ask for it.”

McGregor is resilient too, likely due to a strong family upbringing and a career with the U.S. Army that began right out of high school and included two deployments to the Middle East.

McGregor’s dad is a first generation immigrant from Ireland who met her mother when both lived in Florida. When McGregor was 6 or 7, the family moved from Florida to Minnesota, where her dad had gotten a job. Though a little leery about coming to such a colder climate, they quickly realized this was a better place to raise a family. They lived in Minnetonka and then downtown Hopkins, where McGregor graduated from high school.

“It’s pretty much what we see in Nisswa, but on a larger scale In terms of the smalltown charm and neighborly support,” she said of downtown Hopkins.

McGregor enlisted in the service before graduating from high school for the same reason her father’s family moved to the United States - for freedom.

“We were raised very patriotic and very spiritual, but not necessarily very religious,” she said. “God and country were a big part of the inadvertent lessons I learned just from watching my family.”

A turning point came during her sophomore year of high school, when McGregor spent a summer in Washington, D.C., with the National Young Leaders Conference learning all about the federal government.

“It was an incredible experience,” she said, noting she played the role of national security adviser.

War monuments made an impression.

“That was very powerful for me at 16 years old to connect my family with men and women who made our migration possible,” McGregor said.

That’s when she decided she wanted to serve her country. She knew she wanted to experience something meaningful and to serve in some capacity. She pinpointed one of two career points - Intelligence or Psychological Operations.

So McGregor talked to a recruiter, made a plan and then approached her parents with what she wanted to do. Her father didn’t ask a lot of questions, but her mom did. McGregor and her mom have a close relationship, and she said it was one of the first “fights” they ever had. Her mom couldn’t understand why McGregor felt the need to join the military instead of helping people through other platforms, like church or the Peace Corps.

Her mom did have relevant points that McGregor processed and thought about, including that the Army would require a six-year obligation. Her mom told her, “Six years ago you were 12,” and that stuck with McGregor. “Everyone should have a mom and dad who challenge you to chase your dreams the way mine did.”

She stuck with her decision, though she fully expected she wouldn’t survive boot camp and would be sent home.

“But I had to try,” she said.

“I was shocked. Not only did I survive, I thrived,” McGregor said of those 9 weeks spent at Fort Jackson, South Carolina, where she discovered a talent for shooting a rifle.

“The best thing I did to prepare was to expect there was no way to prepare myself,” McGregor said. “Most of all, I expected the unexpected.

“Nothing was hard in the way I expected it to be hard. I was trained. I was taught,” she said.

Immediately after basic training, McGregor attended Advanced Individual Training at Fort Bragg, North Carolina, based in psychological operations, which she found to be much more challenging than basic training. After then attending language school, McGregor returned to Minnesota to serve with her Arden Hills Army reserve unit.

After two year-long deployments - in 2008 to Iraq, where she turned age 22; and in 2012 to Afghanistan - McGregor said it became apparent she’d reached the point where she’d learned all she could from the Army. She struggled with the thought of another deployment and re-enlisting.

“I got to the point where I felt it was taking from me more than it was giving,” she said, saying she asked herself, “Can I do this for the rest of my adult life;” and “Do I want to do this for the rest of my adult life?”

She made the choice to leave the Army, knowing it would be difficult to leave the job security, structure, purpose and camaraderie that she’d had for 13 years. The Army taught her so much, including to accept and be receptive to criticism.

McGregor met someone who became important to her while in the Army - Jesse Lee, who retired from the military. They decided to take all they’d learned by serving in the military to inject that knowledge elsewhere.

McGregor had spent childhood summers in the lakes area with her family, and her parents eventually bought property in Merrifield. McGregor and Lee moved here and live in rural Brainerd.

McGregor worked toward a four-year college degree during her time with the military, earning a business degree in human resources development and organizational development.

Now she’ll rely on that degree and her military career as head of the Nisswa Chamber.

Nancy Vogt may be reached at 218-855-5877 or nancy.vogt@pineandlakes.com. Follow her on Facebook and on Twitter at www.twitter.com/@PEJ_Nancy.